Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the Minister for laying the order before the House. I agreed with much of what he said. We on this side of the House believe that all parties in Parliament must be united in the fight against terrorism.

Northern Ireland is experiencing peace of a kind. It is a great statistic that the noble Lord quoted, that not a soldier or policeman was killed in the year 1999. We hope that that will continue.

However, it is also true that the Province is not peaceful; it is not content; it is not relaxed. The majority of people from all quarters and on all sides, I believe, seriously want peace. However, there are extremists on both sides. Terrorism in Ireland has been a way of life for 30 years. There are those who really cannot bear the thought of giving it up and who are still attempting to persuade others to continue. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that we in this kingdom do not drop our guard.

In the meantime this Government, quite rightly in my opinion and our opinion, are tidying up the anti-terrorism legislation. They have faced reality. Terrorism--Irish, national and international, whether it be in Ireland, London, the Middle East, on the cybernet, perhaps in years to come in space-- would

14 Jun 2000 : Column 1746

appear to be here to stay. I hope that the Terrorism Bill that is before this House at the moment will include all the statutory powers that the kingdom needs for protection from terrorism in the future.

I am not an optimist about living in a peaceful world. The world seems to fragment. Terrorists and those who fight, shout and create nuisance, both with violence and in other ways, still, unfortunately, seem to get their way. It is vital that necessary legislation to protect the nation from terrorism--because we cannot defeat terrorism--is enacted in this House in this Parliament. The Terrorism Bill will replace and tidy up all the prevention of terrorism legislation. However, this order will continue the shield of protection that legislation can provide while the new Terrorism Bill is being enacted and while Ireland is still full of weapons and there are, unfortunately, a few hundred people who are still determined, given the opportunity, to use them. I support this measure.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I thank the noble Lord for his support.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Social Security and Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2000

9.21 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 10th May be approved [19th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the regulations amend principally the Social Security and Child Support (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations to which I shall refer as the DMA regulations. They also amend regulations on claims and payments, child support and industrial injuries.

As your Lordships will be aware, the DMA regulations were made under the powers in the Social Security Act 1998. That Act set up a new decision making appeals system within social security. The regulations provided the detailed framework for an improved decision making and dispute resolution system, a simplified appeal system and the introduction of a modern, accountable appeals service.

The amendments are purely technical and are intended to make changes to the regulations which will improve customer service. They are based on our experience of live running of the DMA system and are all beneficial to clients. So they are technical and benign.

The new processes were first introduced into child support on 1st June last year and extended to social security benefits between 5th July and 29th November on a rolling programme. On the whole the new system

14 Jun 2000 : Column 1747

works well and we are already starting to see fewer cases going to appeal and a reduction in the appeals backlog.

The regulations break down into three parts: first-tier decision making, appeals, and miscellaneous. The amendments we are making at first-tier are aimed at securing a more efficient and effective management of the new process. The key changes are, first, a clearer definition of "official error". The original definition had caused confusion for clients. More significantly, there was the possibility of customers being penalised where no penalty was intended. Secondly, there are changes to bridge a payment gap when the Secretary of State supersedes a decision on his own initiative. Thirdly, we are regularising the position on supersessions for disability and incapacity benefits in relation to tribunal and commissioner decisions.

I turn now to appeals. The amendments--which affect the composition of tribunals, striking-out, decision notices and time limits--are all aimed at improving the service for appellants by streamlining the administration of appeals.

In the final category, the main changes are the tidying up of the decision making process for industrial injury scheme benefits. The amendments are designed to ensure that DMA principles are adhered to and the improvement of the administration of claims when the entitlement is dependent on the award of another benefit. The existing provisions can lead to delays in people receiving their full entitlement. In future, provided people act within a defined time, payment will be made much more promptly and automatically.

The new decision making and appeals arrangements have already had a positive impact on the way both the agencies and the appeals service handle disputes and appeals. However, there is always room for improvement. I am confident the package before your Lordships tonight will help bring about yet more improvement in the service we give to customers. I hope your Lordships will accept the regulations and I commend them to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 10th May be approved [19th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining clearly the purpose of the regulations. They are not controversial and I am sure that the Minister will be happy to know that we shall not oppose them.

They were discussed in the Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation in the other place, so I shall be brief and restrict myself to two general questions.

The Minister mentioned that the regulations reflect the Government's experience of working with the DMA and are designed to deliver better administrative processes and an improved client service. Therefore, how will the Government measure the success of the new procedures? Will they set a date--for example, six

14 Jun 2000 : Column 1748

months after the passage of the amendments--for some sort of report to be given on the effectiveness or otherwise of the regulations?

Lord Addington: My Lords, I shall be brief. I believe that reading regulations is probably the answer to anybody's insomnia. I have three questions. First, I associate myself with the idea of keeping this matter under review. I do not know whether six months is the right period, but certainly all these matters must be kept under review. Indeed, one hopes that many of the amendments are the result of a continuing process of review.

Regulation 3 refers to the Social Fund Maternity, Funeral Expenses (General) Regulations 1987. That caught my eye and that of my colleagues. I hope that those regulations have been updated and upgraded. What was the initial figure? When something is set down in legislation it has a nasty habit of staying there for ever. We are all trying to claw back money from the Treasury.

It was pointed out to me that Regulation 10 seems to have been superseded by the current Bill. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that for me.

I have a more substantial disagreement. Regulation 25 refers to the change from one-member tribunals to one legally qualified person. That may be a slight improvement but I should like to register the fact that we do not like the idea of one person sitting as a tribunal.

9.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their constructive responses to these regulations. As I have already said, they are benign, but because they are technical I am grateful that I have been given a certain amount of notice of these points.

Perhaps I may respond, first, to the two queries raised by the noble Lord, Lord Astor. He asked how the success of the provisions is to be measured and what forms our evaluation and report will take. He was joined in that request by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. We are evaluating the effect of all the changes that have been made to the provisions covering decision-making during the course of this year. I should say that so far, since we introduced the DMA proposals, the story has been one of good news. The live load of the Appeals Service currently stands at a little over 61,000, down from a load of 140,000 cases in February 1999. Three-quarters of the outstanding cases are under six months old and the average waiting time is 13.7 weeks; that is, under 14 weeks, which is well within the target set by the Secretary of State. In general, the procedures appear to be working very well and are in fact exceeding our expectations.

However, we shall obviously keep this under review. In discharging his commitments under Section 81 of the Social Security Act 1998, the Secretary of State will report annually rather than every six months on the quality of the decisions taken. We shall take account of the effect of these regulations in that report and, if

14 Jun 2000 : Column 1749

necessary, note their impact in any particular areas. I believe that covers the two points raised by the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked about Regulations 3, 10 and 25. Regulation 3 comments in passing on the social fund payments on maternity benefit and funeral benefit. Although the noble Lord has given me notice of his question, he is slightly cheekily using this to raise a wider point than is dealt with in these regulations; namely, to ensure that there is seamlessness between qualifying benefits and succeeding benefits and how those may affect funeral benefits.

I have not been able to find out what happened long ago as regards funeral benefit, but we know that in 1995, when I served in the Opposition, a limit of £500 was put on funeral directors' expenses. In addition, other legitimate expenses such as the cost of a plot were allowed. In 1997 the figure for the benefit to cover funeral directors' expenses was raised to £600. Other permitted expenses are also allowed. I believe that that demonstrates that we are keeping this benefit under review and that we have raised it rather more generously than the rate of inflation. I hope that that reassures the noble Lord.

As regards Regulation 10 which covers departures, the noble Lord asked whether those are to be suspended, given the provisions of the current Bill. As he will know, departures in the Bill currently moving through this House are to be replaced by a new scheme of variations. Regulations with respect to variations will be laid before the House for debate in due course. Any details that may concern noble Lords can be discussed at that time.

The third query on the regulations raised by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, concerned Regulation 25. Again, he has quite understandably used this as a peg on which to raise wider concerns about the success or otherwise of one-member tribunals. The noble Lord will recall from our deliberations on the original DMA Bill that the president of the appeals tribunals deals with their constitution and the appointment of panel

14 Jun 2000 : Column 1750

members. The chairman of each individual tribunal is always legally qualified. Tribunals are constituted with one member when the issue is only one of legal interpretation. If, however, a matter concerned, for example, with disability benefit arises where an assessment of physical disability is required, a medical specialist would be attached to the tribunal, thus making it a two-member panel. If the tribunal needed to draw upon financial and actuarial experience, a third member with the relevant expertise would be brought in.

For the nine months for which we have been able to gather statistics--April 1999 to January 2000--a roughly one-third split between three-member, two-member and one-member tribunals were constituted. The child support tribunals largely comprised one member, with male and female lawyers equally represented on them. I asked specifically whether problems had been reported, but I have not been made aware of anything unsatisfactory in the present arrangements for three, two and one-member tribunals. They appear to be working well and we have received no complaints. I had a meeting yesterday with the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux on a wide range of issues associated with CSA matters and so on. I am sure that if NACAB had any concerns about one-member tribunals it would have raised them at the meeting. It did not do so; I therefore have no reason to think that the system is working less than well. Indeed, the fact that we are able to speed up the appeals, added to the sharp reduction in the backlog, is a testimonial. However, if noble Lords have any reason to be worried about implementation of these regulations, I am always happy to pursue the matter further.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their constructive comments, and particularly for giving me notice on the technical issues that were raised. I hope that in the light of my comments, your Lordships will feel able to support the regulations. I commend them to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

        House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before ten o'clock.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page