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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, no; but they will be trained. The kind of things they will be looking at, for example, are striking out a claim where someone is seeking to challenge a pay date when that is laid down by legislation: it is a clear fact and no discretion is involved. Another example might be whether they turn up on a fortnightly basis or otherwise to get their JSA: the law is unambiguous. They will also be handling matters like renewals, deferments and so on. They will not be legally trained, but the kinds of decisions they will make will not require legal training. I hope that has addressed the noble Lord's point.
This package of regulations marks a step along the way of improving the CSA. We all know the difficulty that the CSA has is particularly marked in obtaining maintenance from self-employed non-resident parents. Regulation 6 introduces provisions which self-employed parents should find helpful, enabling them to provide the figures which they use for self-assessment of their earnings for tax purposes, for use in calculating maintenance. Only where they are unable to provide them, for example, if the business is a new one, will the agency have to continue to use the old cumbersome arrangements.
The package also includes a regulation, Regulation 3, to defer the re-introduction of fees until April 2001. That was originally provided for in legislation. It was subsequently deferred on a couple of occasions, and until the service is of sufficient quality we do not think it is appropriate to talk about fees. Therefore we are proposing not to re-introduce fees for at least another two years.
A further measure in Regulation 6(7) restores the policy intention in respect of the valuation of property transferred before 1993 in lieu of child maintenance, where a decision by a child support commissioner has resulted in that value being less than was originally intended.
These are the most significant of the changes contained in the package. Your Lordships will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to go over the regulations one by one since they are very extensive; but I will do my best to answer any questions that may arise before us today. I hope that your Lordships will accept the regulations. I beg to move.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness for her explanations of these three orders. I believe that it is convenient to deal with the orders en bloc, although the first one deals with very important issues relating to appeals whereas the second and third are rather more detailed and relate to the Child Support Agency.
In the light of the debates last year on the Social Security Bill I have some serious concerns about these orders. We complained at that time that if the implementation of the Act took the form of statutory instruments, we would not be able to amend them. In relation to a number of points arising on the orders had it been possible to amend them I would have wished to do so.
Before turning to the points of substance, I thank the noble Baroness for writing to me explaining some of the points dealt with in the orders. Obviously, the orders are very complex and require detailed examination. In that context I make one particular point.
In the course of considering these matters I came across the various documents produced for the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Those appeared to me to be a vast improvement on the Explanatory Notes on the back of the orders. Given that a number of these issues will be of great concern to outside bodies like the Child Support Agency, Citizens Advice Bureaux and so on, perhaps the noble Baroness and her department--I do not ask that it be dealt with this evening--will consider whether the documents produced for the Joint Committee should be more widely distributed to general advantage. To a large extent, these complex matters must be explained by the various bodies to the people whom they seriously affect. The more information that can be provided, and the simpler the explanation, the better. It seems to me that the documents to which I have referred achieve that end.
Next, perhaps the Government Chief Whip could say what determines the order in which these measures come before the House as opposed to the other place. Some have come ahead of these and some after. I understand that one of the orders is to go before the other place tomorrow. The other place will not have the benefit that we have had of hearing the debates in the other place. Perhaps that is also a point that can be considered.
I turn to the substance of the matter. Some of these issues have been raised with a number of outside bodies which have expressed very considerable concern about the way in which the orders operate. The Explanatory Notes provided to the Joint Committee point out that the orders will not be referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee. Given their importance, I was not clear precisely why that was so. Apparently, it was based on the fact that there was a short time lag between the Act on the one hand and the making of the orders on the other. But I am not sure why we have not had the advantage of the Social Security Advisory Committee's comments on these orders.
Essentially, what we have here is a simplification in the sense that a number of different jurisdictions are to be amalgamated. But one feels that the simplification is not by and large to the advantage of the people affected by these orders. The tendency has been to take the lowest common denominator in terms of time limits and so on. In addition, the situation now is one in which the Secretary of State is said to take the decisions. Perhaps the Minister can say who in practice will make the decisions. I doubt whether Mr. Darling will see each of them individually. It appears that provision is made whereby, if the officials concerned discover that they have made a mistake, they can take immediate or very rapid action to put it right.
Having said that, there are a number of points about which the outside bodies make complaint, in particular the composition of tribunals. As I understand it, the fact is that a number of them selected by the president will in the light of these orders be single-member tribunals. Can the Minister confirm that if they are single member tribunals he or she will be a lawyer? That would be helpful to know.
I have received two separate sets of representations regarding the situation which may arise if there is a single member tribunal. In a specific case there was no presenting officer. Apparently it is now common for presenting officers not to turn up. The appellant was not represented, as is commonly the case. During the hearing the appellant had a psychotic fit. If a single member tribunal is sitting with no presenting officer, considerable problems may arise if some appellants are unhappy or indeed disturbed by the situation. It is a genuine point which needs to be considered.
Having thought that that was a one-off example, somewhat to my surprise a similar case was brought to my attention. Apparently, not satisfied with the decision, the appellant tried to jump out of the window and had to be restrained. I raise the point because I was surprised to hear of the first case and even more surprised to hear of the second; and as a result of the Bill and these orders we shall have single member tribunals.
In addition, I have had representations pointing out that the chairman, sitting alone, has to take a note, keep the questioning going, observe the appellant, and does not have the advantage of the experience of colleagues if a larger number of individuals were to be involved in the tribunal. I hope that these points can be clarified.
The noble Baroness will know that there is concern regarding the reduced time limits. It is difficult not to receive the impression that the time limits to lodge an appeal are being reduced on the ground that it will reduce the period before the appeal can be heard. As the noble Baroness pointed out, on average appeals take something like seven months, and perhaps significantly longer, to be heard. A month seems a somewhat short period when people may have to assimilate the decision against which they wish to appeal. Two weeks also seems extraordinarily brief. People may be on holiday. Mail may not be received as swiftly as it might, and so on. Those time limits seem very tight indeed.
The third cause for concern is the wide powers to strike out a specific application. I was not greatly reassured by the Minister's response to my intervention. The striking out provisions may be made by an individual who is not legally qualified. If we were able to amend the order we would wish to examine that provision in detail and perhaps vote upon it.
As regards the time limit to appeal to the commissioners--it can only be on a point of law and is effectively to a body the equivalent of the High Court--it is a shorter period than would be the case if there were an appeal to the High Court. The time limit for appeals to commissioners on a point of law should be the same as that which applies for appeals to the High Court.
All those matters give considerable cause for concern, as does the fact that a legally qualified panel member can reinstate an appeal. However, I understand from the Minister that all tribunals will have a legally qualified member who can reinstate an appeal if appropriate.
I turn rapidly to the second and third orders. I am puzzled that we should suddenly have new child support regulations when, as I understand it, the Government are making progress with their proposals for changing the law with regard to the agency and expect to produce a
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