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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the hope is that the Finance Bill will be published here soon after the Second Reading in the House of Commons. Therefore, it will come here in the form of a No. 2 Bill before it goes into Committee in the House of Commons and we shall be able to debate it.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I should be happy to deal with a Finance Bill in the way that we deal with other Bills. However, governments would not like that because they would not get their legislation out by the end of July. Therefore, we arrived at the "Saatchi" scheme by which a No. 2 Bill would go through the House of Lords in parallel. At the end of that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be offered a choice of amendments which, if accepted, would, I believe, vastly improve the quality of the legislation passed.
I should like briefly to make a purely non-political point. This debate demonstrates just how wide is the expertise and knowledge in this House on these matters, which is why governments should take the House of Lords more seriously when it comes to financial scrutiny. The debate has also demonstrated that tax is a dividing issue and will remain so in the weeks ahead when we come to the general election. The Liberal Democrats have promised more taxation. In Scotland not only will there be more taxation: there is also a promise of less expenditure because the Barnett formula is to be reformed. I believe that the Government will still need to explain how they intend to fund the gap between the increase in public expenditure and the growth in the economy. That is something to which we shall return in the weeks ahead, and I for one shall enjoy that debate.
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 14th February be approved [8th Report from the Joint Committee].
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations 2001 which were laid before the House on 14th February be approved. I am grateful to your Lordships for agreeing to consider at the same time the draft Social Security Commissioners (Procedure) (Amendment) Regulations 2001. These regulations were also laid on 14th February 2001 by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary for the Lord Chancellor's Department. I can confirm that these regulations are compatible with the Government's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
It may be helpful if I first deal with the regulations on decision making and appeals. Your Lordships will recall that under the Social Security Act 1998 we introduced decision making and reform to the appeals system across child support and social security benefits administered by the Secretary of State.
The regulations before the House support measures introduced under the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000. The Act continues the reform process by aligning local authority decision making for housing and council tax benefits with the rest of the benefit system. More importantly, the Act brings those two benefits into the mainstream social security appeals arrangements. From July, claimants will have a right of appeal against a local authority decision on their benefit claim to an independent appeal tribunal administered by the Appeals Service agency. There is a further right of appeal, on a point of law, to the social security commissioners and then to the higher courts.
The regulations set out detailed provisions for reconsidering and changing local authority decisions on benefit claims. They also set out procedures for making an appeal identical to those in other social security benefits. They apply existing legislation relating to the powers and procedures of appeal tribunals to housing and council tax benefits appeals.
There are 23 regulations. I am very happy to describe them in detail to your Lordships tonight, or simply to do my best to answer any questions. I am in your Lordships' hands. I know that these were--so to speak--nodded through in the other place as being essentially technicalities about letters and dates and so on. Rather than take up the time of the House, I am willing simply to move them. However, if noble Lords wish, I am willing to read out the other 11 pages. I commend the regulations to the House.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, as the Minister suggests, it would be sensible to put specific questions rather than to go through every part of the regulations. Noble Lords present took part in the primary legislation which has spawned this massive, by normal standards, document. It is almost as big as a Bill. Given that noble Lords present are familiar with the subject matter, there is no need for it to be spelled out in great detail.
Having said that, I thank the Minister for her opening remarks, not least because I understand that she is here at some considerable inconvenience to herself. On these Benches, we appreciate the expertise which she brings to discussions on such matters as the regulations we have before us.
Perhaps I may ask for clarification. As the Minister has pointed out, the effect of the regulations is to bring the appeals procedure very much into the mainstream of such arrangements. However, they cover a wide range of subjects. When we debated the primary legislation, one of the matters discussed was membership of the tribunals. If there are difficult financial matters about balance sheets, income expense accounts and so on, there are provisions for an expert on financial matters, and, more generally, for a legal member on the tribunal.
The regulations cover a wide range of issues. For example, the tribunal will hear decisions on social security, child support, vaccine damage, tax credit and compensationary recovery questions and on decisions under the Road Traffic Act. So far as concerns the vaccine damage side, will there be provision for a medical expert to be present? That would be appropriate. At the moment that is not so. There are arrangements for financial and legal experts but not for medical experts.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, these regulations bring the housing and council tax benefits into the appeals system. We are therefore discussing those regulations tonight rather than having a general debate on the Appeals Service Agency. If I can be, I would wish to be helpful to the noble Lord.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, I move from that matter to the Explanatory Note to the regulations. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I was misled. The Explanatory Note points out that matters have not been referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee because the regulations are laid within a fairly tight timescale. None the less, perhaps I may ask the Baroness whether she feels that it is advantageous in any case to have advice from the Social Security Advisory Committee. It is also pointed out that:
I have another point about the Explanatory Note. I vividly recall a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, in one of our earlier debates. The noble Baroness said that she had asked her secretary to read
We are here concerned with a statutory instrument in relation to housing and council tax benefits. I shall not go into some of the points on other areas covered by the appeals procedure. We can return to them on other instruments concerning different parts of the main legislation.
I am concerned about one aspect with regard to the housing benefit fraud. The national housing benefit review of 1997 to 1998 states that 16 per cent of those receiving housing benefit were paid an inaccurate amount. I am not clear to what extent the errors made by the department have been corrected by the appeals procedure, or whether that is the figure before the appeals were taken. It would be helpful to have some information on that point.
I have one final point. The integration of the appeals procedure--to a considerable extent, that is what it is--will mean that housing benefit payments will come under the Appeals Service Agency and will be subject to the Appeals Service Agency targets. As I understand the position, the agency has a number of performance targets. In my former incarnation as a Member of the other place, I used to worry about the way in which the appeals procedure worked. One of the targets is to reduce the public sector sickness absence to the public service baseline level.
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