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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Social Security and Child Support (Decisions and Appeals) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002

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Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 8 May 2002

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Draft Social Security and Child Support (Decisions and Appeals) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002

4.30 pm

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, I shall tell hon. Members that I am happy for male members of the Committee to remove their jackets.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks):I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security and Child Support (Decisions and Appeals) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002.

The Chairman: With this we may consider the draft Tax Credits (Decisions and Appeals) (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2002.

Malcolm Wicks: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Taylor. I am sorry if I anticipated your kindness in allowing us to remove our jackets by taking mine off before you spoke.

The regulations amend legislation governing decision making and appeals arrangements for clients of the Department for Work and Pensions. A right of appeal to an independent body against decisions on social security has been a key component of social security law since the legislative framework was laid down in 1948. Historians among us might recognise that some elements, including appeal rights, have existed since the introduction of the National Insurance Act 1911—which was so long ago that I believe the Liberals were in power at the time.

Hon. Members may recall that we undertook a major overhaul of social security decision making and appeals arrangements in 1999 following the introduction of the Social Security Act 1998. The changes were part of our modernisation drive to streamline arrangements for handling disputes and appeals. A unified appeals tribunal system was established under the new arrangements. We subsequently established an agency to administer appeals, whose chief executive is accountable for performance. It is proper that the rules and processes for decision making and appeals are updated periodically, which is the purpose of the regulations before the Committee today.

The first draft statutory instrument amends regulations governing decision making and appeals for social security benefits, child support, housing benefit, council tax benefit and tax credits for Great Britain. The Commissioners of Inland Revenue will join in making those regulations, as some of the

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amendments relate to tax credits for which the Revenue is responsible.

The second draft statutory instrument before us makes several amendments identical to those in the first set of regulations, but only for tax credits in Northern Ireland. Members of the Committee will doubtless be aware that Northern Ireland tax credit issues are reserved to the Revenue. However, in so far as those regulations are needed for tax credit purposes, they mirror exactly the provisions in the first set of regulations, for which I am responsible. I intend to refer to individual regulations as they are numbered in the draft Social Security and Child Support (Decisions and Appeals) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002. Members of the Committee will appreciate that when I do so, I am also referring to the corresponding regulations, where appropriate, in the draft Tax Credits (Decisions and Appeals) (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2002.

The amending regulations largely correct errors and omissions that have come to light since the regulations were last amended in June 2000. They also clarify existing provisions and implement minor changes in the decision-making and appeals policy now that we have had the opportunity to see the policy working in practice. They also make equivalent amendments, where appropriate, to the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations 2001.

Hon. Members will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to explain in detail the purpose of each amendment in the regulations. I would, however, like to outline the broad areas covered by the amendments, and draw to the attention of the Committee some of the more significant changes.

Regulations 3 to 6 make amendments to regulations dealing with decision making, and in particular to regulations providing for the revision of decisions. Regulations 7 to 11 make amendments to regulations dealing with general matters in relation to appeals, including time limits and rules for making appeals. Regulation 10, in particular, provides that first-tier decision makers may admit late appeals where the conditions in that regulation are satisfied. That is wholly to the benefit of the claimant wishing to make an appeal.

At present, an application for an extension of time must be determined by a legally qualified panel member. This amendment will speed up the process and avoid having to refer cases to a legally qualified panel member where it is clear that the conditions for a late appeal are satisfied. If the first-tier decision maker is not inclined to allow a late appeal, or the application is made under the reasonable prospect of success condition, to ensure justice for appellants, the matter will still be determined by a legally qualified panel member.

Regulations 12 to 15 make amendments to regulations dealing with appeals procedure, the

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striking out of appeals and oral hearings. Regulation 13, in particular, provides for tribunal clerks to reinstate certain appeals, which they have struck out. At present only a legally qualified panel member can reinstate a struck-out appeal. That will speed up the process for appellants and will be less costly. The amendment does, however, preserve the safeguard for appellants that if the clerk is minded not to reinstate a struck-out appeal, the ultimate decision will be for a legally qualified panel member.

Right hon. and hon. Members may also be interested to note that regulation 14 provides that a panel member, other than the chairman, or a party to the proceedings, may be "present" at an oral hearing by live television link. That is conditional upon the appellant's consent being given. The amendment, which is prompted as a result of new technology, will facilitate future attendance at oral hearings by live television link where it is difficult for an individual to be present in person.

Regulations 16 to 20 amend regulations dealing with decisions of appeal tribunals and applications for leave to appeal to commissioners. Regulations 21 and 22 amend schedules dealing with social security decisions against which no appeal lies, and qualifications of persons appointed to the panel to hear appeals. Regulation 21, in particular, inserts a list of non-appealable decisions, which are made in accordance with the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Regulations 1987. Although we are unaware of any specific examples of people losing out, there has been some uncertainty as to whether some appeal rights may have been inadvertently missed under the existing provision. The new list therefore restores those appeal rights to the position that existed before the changes of 1999.

Finally, regulations 23 to 28 make amendments to the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations 2001 to mirror the amendments to the main decisions and appeals regulations that I have already outlined. Those are the most significant changes in the package. The remainder are for the most part technical. I shall be happy, however, to answer questions about any of them. The regulations before the Committee today underpin our commitment to ensuring that the decision-making and appeals arrangements work properly for benefit and tax credit claimants and clients of the Child Support Agency. I am satisfied that they are compatible with the European convention on human rights and I commend them to the Committee.

4.38 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): It was the official Opposition's understanding that this was Treasury business first and foremost, so my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) was planning to speak here. However, the fact that the Finance Bill is being taken on the Floor of the House has obviously detained him. He told me that despite the many penetrating questions

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that he had prepared to ask the Minister, the Opposition have no serious qualms about the measures. We therefore do not want to press the matter to a vote.

4.39 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): It is a pleasure to serve under your Chairmanship, Mr. Taylor, and it is heartening to see that the 1997 intake can rise to such giddy heights so quickly. There is hope for me yet.

The Minister, whom I regard as one of the most humane in the entire Government—although my saying that may damn him forever—has taken us through the technical details of the regulations. Most of them appear to be tidying-up measures that are predominantly to the benefit of would-be appellants and claimants. However, will he clarify whether claimants or appellants might regard any aspects of the regulations as circumscribing their rights? I do not think that they would, but it would be helpful to be sure.

Some of the regulations relate mainly to housing benefit. Last year I wrote to a sample of one in four authorities that administer housing benefit to ask them for their views on the administration of the system. The single biggest complaint was that the system is constantly mucked about with—and here we are this afternoon, mucking about with it again. The regulations cover technical points of fine detail, and as to some extent they refer to appeals rather than decisions, they may not directly affect local authorities. However, those authorities had a sense that Departments churned out so many changes—I suspect that many of them never go through Committee—that they received new regulations once a week or once a fortnight. That was making it almost impossible for them to run the system, because no sooner had they asked the computer people to program in one change, than the next change was introduced.

Will the Minister step back from the fine print of the regulations to give us an idea of the Department's strategy on holding back from making constant nit-picking changes? It should perhaps have a self-denying ordinance and say, "We will muck about with the system only in two big tranches in the spring and autumn," or perhaps only once a year. I am not enough of a legal expert to know whether some of the problems have to be sorted as soon as they are spotted because of legal loopholes and problems. However, I ask the Department on behalf of the nation's housing benefit authorities to examine how often the rules are changed. Will the Minister do everything in his power to ensure that it happens less frequently? I do not want to be an accessory to the problem, so I am assuming that the regulations before us concern necessary and urgent tidying up.

Having served, for my sins, on the Committee on the Social Security Act 1998, which reformed the decision-making and appeals process that we are amending today, I recall that many concerns were expressed about issues such as the composition of

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tribunals and striking out. We are tweaking the relevant provisions today, and the Minister mentioned the process for reinstating struck-out appeals. One concern that we had at the time was that people who were not experts would strike out appeals because they did not look plausible. We are now making it easier for the appeals to be reinstated, which makes me wonder whether our concerns were justified. Will the Minister give us an idea of the scale of that problem? Are a significant number of appeals being struck out, and is that why we have to make it easier to reinstate struck-out appeals?

Finally, in Committee on the 1998 Bill we asked for regular reporting back by the appeals service on how the new decision-making and appeals process was working. We may get annual reports on the appeals service among all the guff that we receive, but I am unsure whether the new system is cutting waiting times, or the number of appeals or errors. Will the Minister tell us whether the decision-making and appeals process, which has now been up and running for three years, and with which we are fiddling about at the edges, is serving its intended purpose?

As far as I can see, subject to the caveat about housing benefit changes, the regulations are broadly benign, so we shall not oppose them.

4.43 pm

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): I shall deal specifically with the regulations concerning Northern Ireland.

I welcome the amendments in regulations 8 and 10. I have represented constituents at hearings and made representations to the appeals service in Northern Ireland both to apply for a late appeal and to have an appeal reinstated after it has been struck out. At times I found the process protracted and complex, and I welcome in particular the fact that regulation 10 enables the clerk to the appeal tribunal to reinstate an appeal that has been struck out in certain circumstances.

The explanatory notes that accompany the regulations state:

    "Regulation 10 extends regulation 47 of the principal Regulations so as to allow the clerk to an appeal tribunal to reinstate an appeal which has been struck out for failure to comply with a direction."

Will the Minister clarify the circumstances in which that is envisaged? Obviously, we are dealing with amendments, and the circumstances that the provision covers are not clear in the body of the legislation before us. He may not be able to respond today, but it would be useful to have that clarified.

4.45 pm

 
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Prepared Wednesday 8 May 2002