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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am disarmed by the approach that, the more modest the amendment, the more likely it is to be accepted by the Government. I wonder whether the more trivial it is, perhaps the less significant it is. It may reassure the noble Earl that the substance, if not the form, of his wording is well taken into account.

The amendment seeks to require the Secretary of State to ensure that complaints, including complaints about agency staff, are investigated. The way to do that, the noble Lord suggests, is to set up a single independent case examiner.

We all agree that complaints must be fully investigated and appropriate action taken. There should be some kind of external review mechanism to ensure that that happens.

Two of the DSS agencies, the Contributions Agency and the Child Support Agency, have adopted the independent case examiner route referred to in the

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amendment, which perhaps puts a question mark over the noble Earl's belief that the ombudsman is the appropriate safety valve for the Child Support Agency.

Earl Russell: I am grateful to the Minister. I obtained my belief from reading the ombudsman's report on the Child Support Agency. Clearly I am in good company.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It is clear that one does not obviate the other or make it redundant.

The Benefits Agency has taken a different route and I shall explain how this has come about. The BA wants its staff to resolve complaints as quickly and as simply as possible. It encourages customers--no, it encourages claimants--to make a complaint at the initial point of contact in the first instance. If the claimant is still dissatisfied after his case has been through the agency's normal internal complaints procedure, he can take his case to the local independent complaints panels. These panels were set up in July 1997 for each of the agency's units, following a successful pilot in Newcastle. The pilot was found to be an unbureaucratic, speedy and effective way of addressing the concerns of claimants.

The Citizens' Charter Complaints Task Force was set up in 1993 with a two-year remit to look at how public services handle complaints and to make recommendations. One of its aims was to uncover good practice in public service organisations.

The task force asked officials from the Benefits Agency to make a presentation about the Newcastle pilot. The task force fully supported the approach, which was tied in with a customer-oriented approach to service generally. This approach has brought about many service improvements since the BA was launched and has resulted in the agency being awarded a total of 51 Chartermarks. It does not say out of how many, but 51 must be better than two.

The task force recommended that all public services should have an external review mechanism appropriate to its own circumstances and its existing complaints handling arrangements. The Benefits Agency wished to implement this recommendation by extending its pilot scheme, and the task force fully supported this.

The system now operates throughout the agency. Each local panel sets its own terms of reference and is entirely independent of the agency. The Benefits Agency merely provides administrative support. The full facts of the case are made available to the panel, and the agency provides additional information as required. The panels are made up of volunteers from local organisations who are knowledgeable about providing a service; for example, members of welfare rights groups, hospitals, libraries, schools and GP surgeries. By working with representatives of local groups in this way, the agency receives objective advice from people with a wide range of experience.

Panels can recommend new local procedures for areas of improvement. Managers are able to consider recommendations quickly and implement them wherever possible. The recommendations a panel might make are wide-ranging. For example, it might suggest that the office handle certain cases more sensitively;

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revise certain procedures, consider whether compensation payments would apply in a particular case; try to alter waiting room arrangements; consider improvements for service to particular groups such as pensioners, people with young children or the blind. It might also highlight a training need, particularly if a problem kept recurring.

The local complaints panels are a recent initiative and the Benefits Agency is monitoring their operation carefully. It will publish its findings and information on the improvements resulting from recommendations made by local panels in the agency's annual report and accounts for 1997-98. A full review of the effectiveness of the independent local tier will commence in April 1998 and will include consultation with claimants and panel members.

We want to encourage local ownership of service standards by Benefits Agency districts and local communities. This amendment would involve creating a centralised, more remote and more expensive system which would take many months on average to deal with each complaint. On the other hand, we anticipate local panels will consider each complaint and deal with it within two months.

The arrangements I have described are right for the Benefits Agency and tailored to local circumstances. I hope that in the light of my explanation, in particular of how this approach fits in with the views of the Citizens' Charter Task Force, that the noble Earl will withdraw this amendment.

Lord Higgins: May I make an impassioned appeal at this stage of the proceedings? I do not expect the noble Baroness to reply immediately, but perhaps she and the Lord Advocate will take it into account.

I hope that we can avoid the use of this horrid word "customers". These people are not customers; they have no choice. Customers have choices where they go. These people are human beings, they are not customers. They are people about whom we are concerned to ensure that they get their proper benefits. I hope that the bureaucracy will take this into account and avoid it in future.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I understand where the noble Lord is coming from. It is even worse than being told when you are a passenger on a train that you are a customer, as though you have a choice about which train you go on. It is even worse in the NHS. Many of us prefer the old-fashioned term "patient" to that of "customer". It may be that the Citizens' Charter has produced a vocabulary with which we have to be consistent, but I share the noble Lord's preference for the old vocabulary.

Earl Russell: I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and I am grateful for what he said. I noticed with great pleasure that when the noble Baroness used the word "customer" she instantly corrected it before the noble Lord spoke.

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I congratulate the Minister on her debating skills. She scored every point she could from the hand she had to play. The way she instantly responded to the implications of the Child Support Agency by arguing that, first, an independent case examiner does not relieve the pressure on the ombudsman and, secondly, that the ombudsman and the examiner are not mutually exclusive alternatives was extremely well done.

The Minister went into a revolving door. The trouble with the Child Support Agency is that it illustrates the danger of decisions made by computer. The Minister said that she wished it did. That is exactly what you get when you try to use a formula and you feed it into a computer. As my late noble friend Lady Seear used to say, "Garbage in, garbage out".

Much more substantial was the point she made about the new procedure set up by the Benefits Agency. It is too early to start passing judgment finally on a procedure set up in July 1997. I wish that procedure well. I note what the Minister has said about it, and in the light of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 41 agreed to.

Clause 12 [Regulations with respect to decisions]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 17:

Page 7, line 8, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Baroness said: I move Amendment No. 17 and speak also to Amendment No. 155. This group of amendments is wholly technical. The effect is to move the provisions currently to be found in subsection (2) of Clause 12 of this Bill into subsection (5) of Section 16 of the Industrial Tribunals Act 1996. Amendment No. 17 deletes the relevant provision from Clause 12, while Amendment No. 155 effectively inserts the substance of that provision into subsection (5) of Section 16 of the Industrial Tribunals Act 1996.

The provision in question is a straightforward re-enactment of Section 58(4) of the Administration Act. The provision puts beyond doubt that the regulation-making power in Section 16 of the Industrial Tribunals Act 1996 on decisions extends to the total or partial recoupment of jobseekers allowance or unemployment benefit from compensation payments employers are due to pay in consequence of the findings of industrial tribunals.

I can reassure the Committee that the amendments do not substantially affect the policy. The draftsman has simply taken the opportunity to tidy up the drafting of the primary legislation.

With those assurances, I hope that the Committee will accept that the amendments are purely technical, as well as being highly technical, and will therefore feel able to support them.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 12, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 18 agreed to.

Clause 19 [Matters arising as respects decisions]:

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9 p.m.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 18:

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