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Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 160:


Page 52, line 32, at beginning insert ("Subject to subsection (2A)").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 160, I believe that it would be convenient to speak also to Amendments Nos. 162 and 163. These amendments appear in the name of my noble friend Lady Anelay of St. Johns and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, who is, I understand, unable to be present this evening. Had he been here I am sure that as the chairman of the Council on Tribunals he would have expounded their virtues with greater authority than I can.

The amendments seek to delay implementation of the major changes proposed to the structure of social security appeals under the Bill. It is felt that the best approach to take is to allow the changes that are to be made to the first stage of the proceedings to settle down before further far reaching reforms are implemented. Effectively, it is a proposal that we should proceed by stages and not reform the entire hierarchy at a particular moment in time. We have done a considerable amount to improve the first tier and there is a case for seeing how that works out. Clearly, a good deal of the pressure on appeals depends on whether or not mistakes are made at the first stage. We believe that to be a fairly convincing argument. We also understand that practical arguments have been put forward by his Honour Judge Bassingthwaighte as to whether it would be possible to recruit the necessary people for these tribunals in the timescale envisaged in the Bill. That being so, we shall listen with interest to the Government's response to this amendment which is designed to ensure that the changed system gets off to a smoother start than would be the case if the whole process were rushed at once. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart: I have put my name to Amendment No. 162 which is also in the names of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. I support this group of three amendments. It is possible that under the Bill--it may not happen because the commencement orders may be made at different dates--there will be a big bang. I believe that that is unsatisfactory. The Bill makes very substantial changes both to the first tier system of decision-making in the department and to the system of appeal tribunals. As a practical matter, I believe that it is a good idea that changes to the first tier of decision making should be introduced first, tested out and allowed to settle before we go on to the next stage and change the system of appeal tribunals. Although

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I understand the Government's wish to bring about these changes, I suggest that it is not appropriate to do both at the same time. It may not be the intention of the Government to do so; if so, I should like to see that spelt out.

Lord Renton: I hope that in considering these amendments, which I believe have a good deal to commend them, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate will bear in mind what is said in the first sentence on the first page of the Explanatory Memorandum:


    "The Bill makes provision for the simplification of decision-making and appeals in social security, child support and vaccine damage payments".
If simplification is the main purpose of the Bill--although the Long Title is silent on that point--and we are to go fully into all of the complicated changes that are proposed, the Government have a duty to make sure that those changes work. I assume that that is the purpose of those who have put their names to these amendments. It is impressive that the name of a former Law Officer, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, on the Government Benches appears at the top of one of the amendments.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Hardie: I am grateful to noble Lords for speaking to these amendments because it gives me an opportunity to explain why the Government feel that the changes to the appeal system should coincide with changes to the decision making process. To deal with the date of implementation raised by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, all I can say at this stage is that this issue is currently being addressed but the planning assumption is that the changes will all come in together, probably in October 1999.

I believe that there is general agreement in the Committee that the changes that we seek to make to improve the standards of decision making are necessary and probably overdue. I respectfully agree with the view expressed that the changes that we are introducing to first-tier decision making in the agencies will have a beneficial impact on the appeal system. If one gets the first decision right, there should be fewer appeals. Another change that we are introducing is that the agencies will be able to correct errors in their own decisions without the necessity of the claimant having to appeal. Clearly, that is to the benefit of the claimant and all concerned. A further benefit is the requirement to give better explanations to claimants so that if they understand more clearly why decisions have been made it is to be hoped that some will realise that there is no point in appealing and will accept the reasons, assuming that those reasons are properly and coherently set out.

I understand the concerns of noble Lords who seek to delay the changes in the appeal system in order to see the effect of the improvement in the first-tier decision making. The Government are convinced that the changes that they propose to make to the appeals system are worthwhile in their own right. Our aim is to improve standards from one end of the system to the other. The benefits to claimants and others in their dealings with

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the department's agencies will be greater if the changes in decision making and appeals are brought in together. Although a relatively small proportion of claimants appeal against decisions made in their cases, the appeals process is an integral part of a fair and impartial system; it is not simply an add-on. Even under the new system there will be those who justifiably wish to appeal and will have a right of appeal. It is important that that should be an integral part of the system.

At Second Reading tributes were paid to His Honour Judge Bassingthwaighte to whom reference was made by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. I echo the tributes and acknowledge the hard work of the tribunals and the administrative staff within the Independent Tribunal Service. However, there are some key structural changes that are necessary to remove obstacles to further service improvements.

We believe that the time is right to modernise an appeals system which has grown up piecemeal over many years. New aspects of social security and child support have simply been incorporated into the existing appeals system without a fundamental review of whether original appeals models are still appropriate.

Different powers and rules in the separate jurisdictions make the current appeals system complex and confusing for claimants. As an example, the leaflet explaining the rules on appeals and reviews is over 100 pages long, almost half of which are taken up with explaining the differences between social security appeal tribunals, medical appeal tribunals and disability appeal tribunals. I am sure that the Committee will accept that that is unsatisfactory. Furthermore, and what is more unsatisfactory, those who appeal have to wait on average six months for their appeal to be heard. Being an average, some people wait much longer, but the good news is that some people wait less long. That is unsatisfactory. This sort of delay and frustration for claimants is unacceptable and we would be acting irresponsibly if we did not take sensible measures to tackle the problems in this area.

The Committee will recall that the measures we have taken replace the five separate appeals jurisdictions with one unified appeal jurisdiction which will make the system simpler and clearer for staff and claimants alike. Our improvements will enable tribunals to focus their attention on the issue or issues actually in dispute and ensure that they concentrate upon the decision which has been appealed. That will clarify the proper function of the tribunal and improve service to claimants. Our improvements will also enable tribunals to correct errors in their own decisions. That will have the effect of removing a great number of cases which currently go to the commissioners to be corrected.

The Committee may recall that it is not unusual for cases which go to the commissioners to take something in the order of a year. In many cases the matters are merely referred back to a tribunal because inadequate reasons were given. Our system will transfer responsibility for the administration of appeals to the Secretary of State, and will enable her to set targets to reduce unacceptable delays in hearing appeals.

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Our system will also remove the requirement for every appeal to be heard by a three-person tribunal. We hope that it will result in an effective and responsive appeals service, where the expertise of members is focused upon the cases which need it. Those are just some of the examples of why we believe the changes to the appeals system are justified in their own right.

There is a further problem with the amendment. I shall point out some of the difficulties which would occur if the amendments were agreed to. The Bill is structured to deliver integrated changes to decision-making and appeals arrangements. If changes to the appeals system were to be delayed, as proposed in the amendments, there would be a number of unwelcome effects for claimants. It may help if I give some examples. I do not propose to give them all, because there is about a page and a half of them. One of the consequences is that there would be no right of appeal against any decision under Clauses 9, 10 or 11 because Clause 13 would not be in force. Schedules 2 and 3, which set out decisions on which there is a right of appeal and decisions on which there is no right of appeal, would have no effect. That is because they depend on Clause 13 which would not be in force. There would be no appeal tribunals to deal with child support appeals under Clause 42, vaccine damage appeals under Clause 46 and recovery of benefits appeals under Schedule 6. Clause 14, which is a new provision for redetermination of appeals by tribunals, would have no effect because there would be no decisions to correct. One of the provisions in Clause 11 is a re-enactment of an existing provision for revising decisions on, for example, a later change in circumstances. The provision would be lost. Similarly, the power to revise an appeal tribunal decision under Clause 41 (child support) and under Clause 45 (vaccine damage) would also be lost. Those consequences cannot be to the benefit of the claimants.

As I said, there are many other examples, but I shall not delay the Committee. I am sure that noble Lords who tabled the amendments would not wish or intend those consequences. For the reasons I have outlined, I would invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.


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