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Lord Higgins: My Lords, I have listened with care to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who rightly recounted what occurred in Committee. He rightly draws attention to concern in relation to the standard of the decisions that are being made. However, I note that government Amendment No. 68 may also be relevant to this matter. We shall no doubt wish to consider carefully the Minister's remarks on this subject.

We are about to enter into what may well turn out to be a fairly exciting Report stage. Perhaps I may say a word about the situation that has now arisen. In addition to Amendment No. 68, just referred to, there are a very large number of government amendments. That is in many ways extraordinary, given that the other place dealt with the matter in Committee over many weeks. At the beginning of the Committee stage, I thought it right to draw your Lordships' attention to a particular group of government amendments; namely, those which in effect implement a large part--indeed, perhaps the central piece--of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget. Since I am not fully conversant with the technical side, perhaps I may ask the Minister to respond in her normal sympathetic way and say whether there have been financial resolutions in the other place

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supporting these amendments, and whether, if they are carried in this place, it is the Government's intention to move them in another place.

There is considerable concern that the way in which these amendments are being put forward means that they are likely to bypass totally the normal procedure for examining amendments in another place. They are appearing for the first time in this place; they will then return to the Commons as Lords' amendments but with no Committee stage during which the other place can take them into account, nor indeed a Report stage. I therefore hope that the Government might, at an appropriate moment in the discussions--the matter may arise more clearly on Thursday--be able to give us some indication as to exactly how they intend to continue. Would it be possible for these matters to be introduced in a further social security Bill which I believe the Government have in mind when the normal courtesies to the other place could be fulfilled and there would be a reasonable opportunity for Members there to examine the matters in considerable detail?

I do not wish to detain the House further on this matter. However, as we proceed through the mass of amendments before us, we shall need to examine carefully the extent to which the Government's method of proceeding is appropriate. My own feeling is that there are grave dangers in going about the matter in this way, since the legislation will not receive appropriate detailed examination. That said, we look forward to hearing the noble Baroness's comments on Amendment No. 68.

3.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I cannot follow the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, down the very tempting path that he has indicated. It is a basic parliamentary principle that each House is sovereign over its own proceedings. Another place is perfectly capable of making its feelings clear to us should it so wish. I do not believe that we have the authority or the competence to set ourselves up as champions of the procedure of another place. It will do that if it so wishes.

I welcome, as I did previously, government Amendment No. 68, which, so far as it goes, is a good one. However, I remember saying in Committee that I should very much hope to find in that amendment the word "independent". I cannot find it, and that is a significant omission. It is a basic principle that one should not be judge and party in one's own court. Under this Bill, the Secretary of State will at least run the risk of appearing to infringe that principle. It is therefore important that somewhere in the system an element of genuine independence should be inserted.

I have just been reading the Minister's reply to this amendment in Committee. She spoke the language of authority over the judicial process. She stated:

    "we will ensure that decision-making under the new system is of the highest quality".--[Official Report, 30/3/98; col.49.]
There appears to be no doubt in the Minister's mind that this is a proper subject for the Secretary of State's own authority.

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I should feel a good deal happier if there were at least some independent monitoring of this process. So before we enter into a great constitutional argument and refer to courts and so on and so forth, the Minister might avoid a good deal of trouble were she to accept this amendment in the revised form in which it now stands.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, in responding to this amendment and Amendment No. 68 with which it is grouped, perhaps I may revisit the points made rather ingeniously by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in terms of House procedures. I endorse the view put by the noble Earl that it is for the Commons to champion its procedures rather than for us. However, so that there need be no misunderstanding between us, I do not believe that the way in which we are handling this matter necessarily bears the interpretation put upon it by the noble Lord. It might therefore be for the convenience of the House if I repeat the Government's position on that in order to provide an opportunity to return to the matter on reflection, either later on Report or at Third Reading.

My understanding is that national insurance matters come under social security legislation and therefore cannot be included in a finance Bill. As all governments must, the Government have to respond to changing circumstances. It would not be unusual for government amendments to be tabled in respect of Bills that have passed through the Commons and are proceeding through this House. Were that not to be the case, this House could never introduce new material into any Bill, and by definition, when the Bill returns to the Commons, there is the opportunity to amend or reject our amendments and, if the House is so minded--though Heaven forfend!--enter into a game of ping-pong. So in that sense we are doing nothing different. Were we to follow the line of the noble Lord's thinking--namely, that this House is somehow invading the Commons' privilege if it introduces new material which has not been subject to Standing Committee scrutiny in the Commons--the House of Lords would indeed be turned into a poodle and do nothing ever more than comment on the drafting, punctuation and syntax of Commons' debates and never introduce or raise policy issue debates. That is an important consideration in relation to a Bill which, for all kinds of reasons of which your Lordships are aware, has taken a great deal of time to handle. Furthermore, between the beginning of the Bill and the Report stage in this House we have had not only the Budget but the welfare reform Green Paper, both of which introduced new and relevant matters.

As regards the issue of Commons' privilege, it is true that contributions payable into the National Insurance Fund are the subject of Commons' privilege. But it is a privilege that Members of the Commons are able to waive. They will be invited to do so when the Bill returns there. The national insurance changes have been broadly welcomed. During this Session, we must legislate to give businesses the time that they need to be able to operate the system from April 1999. That is why we are handling the matter in this way. The money

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resolution passed at Second Reading in the other place covers all similar new measures. It is the case, is it not, that the noble Lords, Lord Higgins and Lord Goodhart, may still pursue some of their more detailed concerns in relation to national insurance? I entirely take their point. This is not a party-political matter. We are all concerned to achieve the right solutions. I believe we share a common diagnosis of the problems and any contributions the noble Lords can give us that we could take on board would be warmly welcomed. As a former Minister, the noble Lord will understand that one is dependent upon the professional advice that one receives on the matter. I have tried to address the issues of procedure and money resolutions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in rather ingeniously supporting an amendment which had nothing to do with the subject.

I turn now to Amendment No. 1 moved by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and government Amendment No. 68 with which, for the convenience of the House, it is grouped. Both amendments are concerned with the arrangements for overseeing the new decision-making system. Amendment No. 1 seeks to raise again the issue of independent monitoring of decisions made under the new arrangements as set out in the Bill. I shall discuss later why we do not feel we can accept the amendment. Amendment No. 68 is a consequence of the debate on Clause 1 of the Bill at Committee stage when my noble friends Lord Evans of Parkside and Baroness Turner of Camden tabled amendments, with support from all sides of the House, to make it a requirement on the face of the Bill for there to be annual reports on standards of decision-making. In the light of that discussion, I was happy to accept the spirit of the amendment and to give a commitment to come back at Report stage with an appropriate government amendment to put the requirement on the face of the Bill. Amendment No. 68 does just that: it makes it a requirement for a report on standards of decision-making to be prepared annually or at such times or intervals as may be prescribed.

I can assure the House that it is our intention to produce reports annually or as near to each year as possible. Our current thinking is that reports on standards of decision-making will be included as part of the annual departmental report. Publication dates are prone to vary slightly according to the timing of the Budget.

I also wish to follow up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, at Committee stage. He asked whether there would be targets against which standards of decision-making should be judged, and again I promised to consider the matter and come back to him. The reports on the quality of decision-making produced by the Secretary of State will include measurements as regards achievement of targets and the standards to which decisions have been made. We shall discuss with agencies what form these targets will take.

The amendment meets the concerns expressed in both Houses on reports on standards of decision-making. It sets out a clear requirement for there to be reports on standards of decision-making on an annual or near-annual basis. It also makes it a requirement for such reports to be laid before each House of Parliament.

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Amendment No. 1, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, seeks to go much further and to reintroduce independent monitoring. It seeks the appointment of an adjudication standards commissioner to oversee and report on the accuracy and speed of decision-making. We do not believe that that would achieve any improvement in the standard of decision-making but would instead add an additional layer of bureaucracy.

There seem to us to be two particular issues which are at the heart of the amendment: first, the achievement of consistent and reliable decision-making across the agencies; and, secondly, an independent--the word emphasised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell--oversight of the decision-making process.

We believe that the measures we are putting in place will fully address these issues. Furthermore, we believe that our approach makes ongoing improvements to the quality of decision-making an integral part of the process, not an optional add-on.

Consistency will be achieved through the setting of challenging targets and standards for each agency by the Secretary of State, those targets and standards being publicly known. Agency chief executives will be directly accountable to her for the achievement of those standards. Amendments to achieve that will be embodied in the reporting structure.

We believe that this line of accountability is a crucial element of our strategy for making improvements. Agencies have given considerable thought as to how they are to meet their new responsibilities. The standards committees and arrangements for training that I described in Committee are among the many initiatives that will aid quality decision-making. They demonstrate the commitment that is felt across the department to getting this right. High standards will be achieved by making accountability for quality a central feature for every agency, not through a distant and effectively powerless monitoring body.

That brings me to the question of independence. I have sought to explain why we think that accountability, rather than an independent monitoring body alone, is the key to ensuring good service. But, of course, we recognise that there must be public confidence in the integrity of the system, and independent monitoring is important for that. That is why the National Audit Office will have its role in this area extended. We have been discussing with it how to enhance its monitoring of quality. It is not true to say that the National Audit Office is concerned only with the monitoring of accounts. We are already working with it on the implementation of the new procedures. There will be a value-for-money study in the early stages of implementation, in addition to the usual audit.

I hope that your Lordships will accept that, in bringing forward the new clause on Report, we have reflected the will of the House, and I commend Amendment No. 68 to your Lordships. However, we believe that we have in place robust monitoring arrangements to make sure that high quality decision-making is achieved and maintained. We shall

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have the annual reports by the chief executives of agencies, together with demanding targets. The degree to which those targets have been met can be scrutinised. We shall also have the annual report of the Secretary of State, the annual reports of the presidents of tribunals and the report and extended monitoring role of the National Audit Office. We believe that we have in place a full network of monitoring and audit which will ensure accountability as well as integrity of decision-making. I therefore hope that your Lordships will not be minded to accept Amendment No. 1.

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