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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Too many!

Lord Higgins: Too many perhaps, my Lords, but I wish to ask the noble Baroness how many. We are legislating here for probably a small number of people. There are other problems, particularly with regard to disclosure of information. As the noble Baroness knows, I am concerned about the confidentiality of information within government, particularly with regard to information held by the Inland Revenue and so on. There are provisions in the orders for the transfer of information from one party to another which has been obtained from a third party. For example, if in a specific case the CSA has information which it has obtained from a third party--perhaps the Inland Revenue--it can then transfer that information, which may well be private and confidential, to the other person involved in the child support case, whether the parent with care or whoever it may be. That seems to be a sudden relaxation of the rule which previously existed.

Those are most of the points which one might appropriately raise at this stage. We look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness says. Having said that, it is unfortunate that on some of these important points, which are of concern both to the individuals who are affected by the orders and also to the various organisations outside which seek to help them in relation to this legislation, we do not have a better chance to amend the measures. We can either accept the orders or reject them.

Lord Addington: My Lords, on these Benches we support the principle of making appeals work more smoothly and more speedily. However, we have some misgivings about the idea of efficiency as very often "efficiency" means in Treasury-speak "cheap". The Treasury's shadow is always cast over regulations. Whenever we consider a measure which mentions efficiency we should bear that point in mind.

We have some misgivings about the reduction in the number of people on tribunals, not because someone has had a fit, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, suggested. The idea that there is a difficulty in someone having a psychotic fit is an understatement of which we should all be proud. Such a reduction may lead to there being a lack of expertise on a tribunal. For instance, in a case that involved allegations of domestic violence, it might be appropriate to have at least two members on the tribunal, one of each gender.

We are concerned about the time limits that are applied to the lodging of material for appeals. We are particularly concerned that the clock should not start

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running until the appellant, or potential appellant, knows that it is running. That would be a step in the right direction.

We are also concerned about the wholly exceptional circumstances in which the detail might be extended. I believe that those few noble Lords present--I believe we are just quorate--would benefit from having a better idea of what the wholly exceptional circumstances might be. The Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations give effect to some provisions in the context of the CSA but do not call for separate comment. The other CSA regulations allow for the use of the income tax data of the self-employed who, while enjoying apparently considerable means, nevertheless appear to be stating that they are incapable of supporting their children. The idea of allowing the argument for civil liberties to stand in the way of someone being required to give full support to his children is one that my colleagues and I would find totally inappropriate. Having civil liberties does not give you the right to starve your own children.

We welcome the further postponement of the levying of fees by the CSA as it is far from clear that it has yet achieved a level of service that would justify the fees. It has been a consistent line from these Benches that the agency is not to blame; it is the complexity of the legislation. It is to be hoped that the efficiency I mentioned before will allow the agency to do its job.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, this has been, to use a word much favoured by the Civil Service, although I am not sure it really exists, a "timeous" debate. By that I mean not a fearful debate but one that is expeditious and on time. I congratulate your Lordships on helping us to extend the English language.

I shall do my best to answer the points that were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, referred to the opaqueness of the explanatory note compared with that produced by the Joint Committee. I have two responses to that point. First, any individual will be able to ask the agency for a full explanation of its decision. Any individual affected will have rights that currently do not exist. I am happy to follow up the noble Lord's more general point and see whether that is a helpful way of proceeding. I entirely accept that these are technical matters and that one would not expect people who seek to represent themselves fully to understand their import. I am happy to follow that point through.

The noble Lord's second point concerned the relationship of the regulations and the role of the Social Security Advisory Committee. The regulations have not been referred because regulations made within six months of the relevant commencement order do not need to be referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee. However, we will be writing to the Social Security Advisory Committee about the regulations and their effects.

The noble Lord asked about the appearance of presenting officers at tribunals. This is an important issue. The president is discussing with the Benefits

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Agency when presenting officers will be present at appeals. The noble Lord was right to draw our attention to that point.

The noble Lords, Lord Higgins and Lord Addington, asked about the composition of tribunals--single member tribunals, and so on. I am happy to confirm that the single member of a tribunal will be a qualified lawyer. The case raised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, seemed to be a mental health case, which would involve a two-member tribunal. We will be discussing with Judge Harris the question of security, in so far as that was presented, and I am happy to say again that where there is a single member tribunal, as in other tribunals, a clerk will be present to handle the paperwork and administration. There will be other people, so to speak, in the room.

It is worth reminding ourselves that 50 per cent. of all tribunals are expected to have two members, 25 per cent. to have three members and 25 per cent. to have one member. Though this matter will be laid down in regulations, it will be open to Judge Harris to come back to us if he feels that any of these composition balances are inappropriate.

The next point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, which was a concern shared by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, was the general point about time limits. Two sets of time limits apply: the first concerns the appeal to the tribunal from the decision of the agency; the second is the appeal from the tribunal to the commissioners. The regulations propose two different sets of arrangements for each of those.

First, there is a limit of 14 days in which to get a full explanation for the decision from the agency. There is then a one month period for that person to be involved in discussion, dispute or negotiation with the agency. There is then a further one month following that for the appeal to be registered. Therefore, in practice, that person has a minimum of two months, almost two-and-a-half months, for that appeal to be made from the original decision of the agency through to the tribunal.

The time limits are extended further for an appeal from the tribunal to the commission. In reality, there is a three-month time limit in relation to such an appeal. There is one month in which to request a full statement; one month from the issue of the full statement in which to apply for leave to appeal; and there is one month after that for the appeal to be lodged. Therefore, effectively, there is a time limit of three months for the appellant to go from the tribunal to the commissioners.

In addition there is an absolute time limit of 12 months which applies in cases of somebody facing illness--and that may be what the noble Lord, Lord Addington had in mind--bereavement, absence abroad, postal strikes and other exceptional circumstances to be determined by the commissioners. There can be an absolute limit of up to 12 months.

Those arrangements are perfectly decent and proper. I hope that they will ensure that we deal with appeals as expeditiously as possible. That is why I believe your Lordships accept the point about striking out misconceived appeals. A time limit of seven months in

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which to go to the tribunal and up to a year in which to go on to the commissioners is far too long. Throughout that time, a person's benefit status is uncertain and it is right that we should speed up that process as far as possible.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, it is extremely helpful to hear that explanation. However, is it not the case, under the current regulations, that if a claimant does not apply within 14 days for a request for an oral hearing, that may be struck out, as I understand it, by a clerk with no legal training?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, as I understand it, a person may request either an oral or a paper hearing. He certainly needs to give due notice of the fact that he wishes to appeal. He has 14 days in which to ask for an explanation of the decision and one month in which to go into dispute. I take it that the noble Lord is talking about appeals to the tribunal rather than to the commissioners?

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