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Lord Higgins: I believe that the Minister expressed some doubts at Second Reading about whether the restriction might be too draconian and that she said that she would give further consideration, in consultation with outside bodies, to the question of whether, if the limit were reduced, some flexible arrangement could be made so that there may be some discretion for vulnerable groups. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that in her reply.

Earl Russell: I should like to speak briefly in support of the amendment. We have a considerable number of cases--some, but not all, have been forwarded by Richmond CAB--which illustrate the reason why some such amendment may be necessary.

One case involves a recovering drug addict who, at the relevant time, was on a treatment programme and overlooked a housing benefit review form. In fact, it would have been quite difficult at that stage to get him to understand what it was all about. At present, it seems to be the case that no housing benefit claim can be backdated for more than one month even where there is continuous good cause. Where housing benefit is withdrawn, there may be eviction and other consequences which are liable not only to cause hardship to the claimant, but also considerable cost to public funds.

Another case which comes to mind (although it is not a case from Richmond) relates to somebody who was disentitled to benefit and who was illiterate. He had been required to attend a scheme, but his reader, who read his post for him, happened to be away, so he did not know what the letter said until too late, but he lost his benefit none the less. That is the sort of case in which there might be some cause for allowing appeals to go forward at a later date.

The Richmond cases also include the chronic schizophrenic who had a deep paranoid suspicion of other people. If one has dealt with any such cases, one understands--

Lord Williams of Elvel: We have had two interventions from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. Are both spokesmen from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench speaking for the Liberal Democrat Party or are they speaking individually?

Earl Russell: We are both speaking for the party and we are amplifying the same case. I am making points entirely in support of what my noble friend said. It is a procedure which I have seen used before, and many times, by the Front Benches of all parties. I recall during the Jobseekers Bill that the noble Lord's Front Bench had three Members of your Lordships' House taking part, all amplifying each other's arguments and at much greater length than is happening now--and they did a

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great deal of good, if I may say so. However, if the noble Lord thinks that I should not develop the case further, I shall not spend too long on it.

If one tries to approach a paranoid schizophrenic to get him to pay urgent attention to business, one is lucky if one escapes with nothing worse than a flea in one's ear. Those are the sort of cases where the one-month limit is liable to do gross injustice. I hope that the Minister will think seriously about it.

Lord Borrie: Perhaps I may first apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for calling him the noble Earl in the course of our discussion on the previous amendment--

Lord Goodhart: If the noble Lord will excuse me, perhaps he should be apologising to my noble friend.

Lord Borrie: I apologise to both, on the same Front Bench. If the Government accept a point that I sought to make on the previous amendment (that those who are legally entitled to benefit should have a reasonable opportunity to claim and to appeal in order to obtain that benefit), surely they will agree that unreasonable hurdles should not be put in their way.

One is entitled to ask whether imposing a time limit of normally one month is an unreasonable hurdle. We have heard examples--I can cap them with similar instances--of the great difficulty faced by claimants in obtaining the advice that they very much need, especially because of the kind of people they are and the technicality and detail of social security regulations. It is not a matter of being able to obtain an appointment with an adviser tomorrow or even next week. Before one knows it the month has gone.

I believe that there is a case for saying that a one-month limit is an unreasonable hurdle. The Government may say that most people manage, as they do, to make an application, claim and appeal within one month, but surely that should be not used as an argument for saying that one month should be the imposed upper limit. That is quite a different matter. One can ask the Government why, if most people manage to appeal within a month, they worry that some will require a rather longer period. If they accept, as they must, that there are cases, admittedly a minority, in which people find it difficult to get suitable advice within a period of four weeks, surely the Government would be willing to extend the present time limit.

Lord Hardy of Wath: I echo the point that has just been made by my noble friend. In the light of my experience in the other place, I recognise the value of the services provided by citizens advice bureaux and other organisations of that kind. Members of another place are frequently involved in such cases. I held surgeries every two weeks. If a person felt it appropriate to see me, in some cases a fortnight might have elapsed before that could be arranged. The individual might ask whether I thought it worth while to appeal or whether I could assist in that appeal. If a Member of the other place received individuals of that kind, the case might be quite complicated. He might require a few days to

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look into the matter, in which case the best part of a month would have gone by. That would not leave the constituent with very much time in which to pursue his appeal. I believe that the case that has been advanced by my noble friend deserves consideration; indeed, such a case might have been echoed in the other place a little while ago.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Hardie: I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions to this amendment. I make special mention of my namesake my noble friend Lord Hardy. I am reluctant to disagree with my namesake, but I regret that on this occasion I may have to do so. This amendment seeks to ensure that the time limit for appealing which will be set in regulations is not less than three months. The amendment also provides that the chairman is the person who decides whether there is a reasonable excuse for not bringing the appeal before the expiry of the time limit.

The Government intend to make regulations setting a time limit of one month in which an appeal can be made, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has indicated. The Government believe that that strikes a reasonable balance between giving an appellant sufficient time in which to consider the appeal and ensuring that there are no undue delays. I accept that there are disadvantaged people who, by virtue of their situation, may well require a longer period than the more fortunate among us. However, what has been overlooked inadvertently in this amendment is that a dispute period is to be introduced.

To take the first example that has been cited relating to Richmond citizens advice bureau--the person who was housebound and required a home visit--as I understand it, the bureau said that it might be two or three weeks before it could arrange such a visit. That assumed that the recipient of the letter got in touch immediately. With the one-month dispute period, if the recipient got in touch before the end of that period, advantage could be taken of that time to enable a question to be raised as to the correctness of the decision. The appeal period would run from that point. The one-month period taking into account the dispute period will reduce what is now effectively a three-month period to a two-month period.

If the time limit for appeal was longer than two months, the Government believe that it would reduce the incentive for claimants to act quickly in order to have mistakes put right. The shorter time limit will ensure that decisions are revisited while the facts are still fresh. We believe that one month strikes the right balance. That is illustrated by the fact that, as has been observed, at present most claimants appeal within one month. I accept the point raised by my noble friend Lord Borrie that that is not a complete answer to the amendment, but it is an indication that the majority of people manage to mark an appeal within a month, and if a dispute period is introduced claimants will have a two-month period in which to raise issues. Moreover, it is in line with child support appeals. The current limit for appeals in respect of child support is 28 days. Our proposals will make the provision for appeals relating to

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benefits and child support more similar to each other and easier for appellants to understand. We believe that if there are different time limits for different benefits there is a greater risk of confusion.

This amendment would require the regulations to give discretion for a legally qualified chairman to accept a late appeal where he considered that the person had reasonable excuse for not bringing the appeal within the time limit. Current legislation makes provision in regulations which allows late appeals to be brought where there are special circumstances, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has observed. I hope that the Committee is reassured if I say that there will be similar arrangements in future. As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, my noble friend the Minister said at Second Reading that while most claimants appealed within a month, the Government wanted to ensure that they got the provision for late appeals right. It is important that if one has a system people have access to it and have a proper opportunity.

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