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Lord Higgins: I listened with great care to the points made by the noble Lord in proposing the amendment. As I understand it, the basic object of this part of the Bill is to streamline the proceedings. There is always a trade-off between, on the one hand, streamlining and, on the other hand, achieving an effective system. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the clause, it could not reasonably be regarded as streamlining. What the

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amendment seeks to do is to introduce an additional tier of decision-taking for assessment of the standard of adjudication.

Having said that, certainly there are points here of considerable importance. In particular there may be some argument on the lines which have been mentioned. If I understand the position correctly, the arrangements announced in the Budget, about which the noble Baroness has written to some of us, will transfer the procedures in some cases from the Contributions Agency to the Inland Revenue. So one of the points with which we are concerned and to which this amendment would be relevant is the extent to which the Inland Revenue can go ahead correctly. I may have misunderstood the precise point here; if so, I am happy to be corrected. I am not sure whether the Inland Revenue, in its new role as envisaged in the Chancellor's Budget, will come within this process.

I am somewhat surprised by the wording of the amendment. It states:

    "The Adjudication Standards Commissioner shall report annually to the Secretary of State in the light of the review referred to in subsection (2) above and the Secretary of State shall lay a copy of his report before Parliament".
That is straightforward enough. However, subsection (4) goes on to state:

    "The Adjudication Standards Commissioner shall issue guidance on the law relevant to decisions".
I can understand it if the commissioner issued guidance on the law in relation to the reports which had been produced and said that this or that was appropriate in the legal context. But subsection (5) states:

    "The guidance referred to in subsection (4) above shall be available to any person who requests it".
My experience with the Child Support Agency at grass roots level suggests that very often someone will be disputing fiercely the decision made in a child support case. If he is suddenly able to go to the adjudication standards commissioner and get legal advice, that, I am sure, would be welcomed by some of my former constituents. But it seems to me to open up an enormous range of problems and probably very considerable expense. Presumably it means that the adjudication commissioner will have to be a lawyer, as I do not see how else he will be able to give legal advice,

    "to any person who requests it".
So I hope that in the course of the debate the exact point of this provision will be clarified. It may be that I have totally misunderstood what the noble Lord has in mind.

Overall, my feeling is that the amendment does not introduce sanctions of the kind to which I referred in relation to a previous amendment and it does not seem to take the matter very much further forward. It may well be that, despite the suggestions made by the noble Baroness in response to an earlier amendment, we are making progress and that we may need to make further progress. However, it does not seem to me that this amendment takes us very much further forward.

Earl Russell: I assure the Minister that I am not going to shoot Santa Claus. What she said about

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bringing in a new amendment was extremely welcome, especially since this is the second sack of unexpected gifts she has brought to us within a week. However, what the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said about reading the wrapping paper is also extremely relevant. I have never forgotten the day on which I discovered that both my mother and Father Christmas used wrapping paper that came from W. H. Smith. So, with that remark in mind, I should like to scrutinise these issues a little further.

In this country we do not have separation of powers. The Woolsack, even in the absence of its distinguished occupant, is sufficient testimony to that. But one element of the doctrine of separation of powers which we have always had, and to which we have rightly given very great importance, is the independence of the judiciary. Adjudication is, of its essence, a judicial function. The outward form of Clause 1, directing that the Secretary of State, who is an executive officer, shall be responsible for adjudication, bears an outward appearance of threatening to infringe that principle. We are assured that that is not so. I listened carefully to the noble Baroness at Second Reading. The understanding, as I see it, is that the administration rests with the Secretary of State but the judicial responsibility rests elsewhere. That is why it is crucial that the word "independent" in my noble friend's speech should be somewhere in the amendment which the Minister brings back to us on Report.

There is a strong case which executives have always made for influence on the judicial process. The Star Chamber was not actually an inefficient court. On many occasions it did do justice. There was a powerful case to be made for it, roughly along the lines of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. However, because it allowed an executive presence in judicial decisions, a very few bad decisions in a distinguished record discredited the whole court. One can see why that should have been so.

The Secretary of State here is standing at the very top of a slippery slope. When you are standing at the top of a slippery slope, it is generally considered wise to be roped and belayed. That is why the presence of an independent adjudication standards commissioner who can issue guidance on the law is important. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, that this is not so very different from the law reports in The Times, which are available to everyone who wants them and which do not cause very profound administrative problems and have even in the past caused considerable amusement.

This is not such a very startling proposal and it may save us from a good deal of difficulty with the courts later. In fact, a great deal of the Bill is likely to cause problems with the courts not only in this country through judicial review but under the European Convention on Human Rights and through the European Court of Justice. I hope that the Government will think extremely carefully all the way through the passage of this Bill about the way in which the courts may take some of its provisions and that they will not lead the courts into temptation. Taking on board some of the proposals of the amendment in a welcome

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undertaking to come back with a further amendment on Report would be one way in which the Government could do something to meet us. I hope that the Minister will consider it.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for tabling this amendment, as it gives me the opportunity to explain how we will ensure that decision-making under the new system is of the highest quality. Our proposals will ensure that there are proper arrangements for training decision-makers; for producing clear guidance; for monitoring decisions made under the new arrangements; and for reporting on the quality of decision-making.

Before I continue with the rest of the answer, perhaps I may say as an aside that no decision has yet been made in response to the request from the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for information about the Contributions Agency. No decision has yet been made about the implications of moving the agency over to the Inland Revenue, but later this afternoon my noble friend Lord Haskel will be making a statement on that, which may help to address some of the questions.

This new clause seeks to introduce a statutory office-holder--an adjudication standards commissioner. The office-holder would keep the new decision-making process under review and report on the operation of the scheme; issue published guidance on decision-making; and ensure that decision-makers receive suitable training. We aim to ensure that the public have confidence in the integrity and quality of the decision-making system. It may be helpful if I say a little more on the arrangements that we have in hand to meet that aim.

We are all agreed that decisions must be taken fairly and impartially in accordance with the facts and the law. We believe that the best way of ensuring high quality decisions is for agency chief executives to be accountable to the Secretary of State for the decision-making system, and for the individual decisions generated in their agency. Whilst the Secretary of State will remain accountable and responsible for all decisions made on her behalf, I believe that effective decision-making can only be achieved if agency chief executives are given autonomy for all components of the decision-making system.

Agencies have given considerable thought as to how they are to meet their new responsibilities. Decision-makers, first and foremost, need access to accurate guidance that reflects the law. There can be no question of this guidance being written in such a way as to favour administrative convenience. Chief executives will look for impartial advice to the department's professional legal advisers who are experts in administrative and social security law. Agencies will draft guidance based on that legal advice. Agencies will publish the legal guidance together with operational guidance. It will, as now, be available to anyone who wants to see it.

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Agency chief executives will also be responsible for monitoring and general oversight of the system. They will have clear performance and quality standards to achieve.

We are absolutely committed to ensuring that these internal arrangements provide for quality decisions. There is no question of the quality or integrity of decisions being influenced by operational or financial considerations. The decision-making system and associated monitoring structures will be devised and operated in consultation with outside bodies, and the results will be published for all to see.

There will also be external monitoring of the decision-making system. The Government's external auditor, the National Audit Office, will continue to audit the department's accounts. This will include checking the accuracy of decisions. Decision-making could also, if appropriate, feature as an NAO value for money study. We are talking to the National Audit Office about how its role could be enhanced, particularly in the early stages of running the new system. The president of appeal tribunals will report on the quality of decisions made by agencies for those cases which subsequently go to appeal; and we will be placing this requirement on the face of the Bill.

This new clause seeks to give an adjudication standards commissioner the responsibility for ensuring that decision-makers receive suitable training. I have to say that it would be administratively difficult, in practice, for an independent adjudication standards commissioner, with no direct responsibility for management within the agencies, to adopt such a role, but even if the noble Lords' intention is that their role should be advisory, I still do not believe it is necessary. We already recognise that decision-makers need to be supported by quality training. Agency line managers will have responsibility for both identifying and meeting training needs; and central quality support teams will have a role in commenting on the overall quality of training. We therefore see no need for a separate check of training arrangements.

The new clause also proposes that the adjudication standards commissioner should report annually to the Secretary of State. My honourable friend, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Bradley, has already given assurances in another place that we will publish information on quality standards, and I am happy to reaffirm this. However, we do not believe that it is necessary for details such as reporting arrangements to appear on the face of the Bill.

We are committed to giving customers accurate, speedy decisions. We will put in place comprehensive training and guidance and will monitor and report on the quality of decisions. We have an impressive battery of measures which will command public confidence. I hope that with these assurances the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, will feel able to withdraw their amendment.

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