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Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 28 to 30 and 71.

Mr. Bradley: Lords amendments Nos. 27, 28, 29 and 30 clarify the circumstances in which entitlement to benefit may be terminated following a suspension of payment of benefit. Clause 22 contains provisions to suspend payment of benefit when a doubt arises about whether a person is entitled to benefit, and to terminate entitlement following suspension. The intention has always been that entitlement will terminate only when someone fails to comply with an information requirement that the Secretary of State imposes to resolve the issue that led to the suspension. The amendments make that limitation explicit in the Bill, in response to concerns expressed in another place.

Lords amendment No. 71 relocates clause 59 into the section of the Bill dealing with "benefits". Currently, the clause is incorrectly located in the section of the Bill dealing with "contributions". The amendment rectifies a technical error in the current draft of the Bill.

I commend the amendments to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 28 to 30 agreed to.

Clause 27

Restrictions on entitlement to benefit in certain cases of error


Lords amendment: No. 31, in page 17, line 28, at beginning insert ("Subject to subsection (1A) below,")

Mr. Keith Bradley: I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 32 to 37, 52 to 58, 138 to 141, 143 and 145.

Mr. Bradley: Clause 27 contains provisions to deal with restrictions on entitlement to arrears of benefit

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following a decision by a commissioner or court which reinterprets the law in a particular area. The clause replaces and clarifies sections 68 and 69 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992.

Lords amendments Nos. 37 and 58 clarify the fact that restrictions on payment of arrears will apply regardless of whether a claim or application is made before or after the date of the relevant determination. The other amendments in the group will ensure that the provisions of clauses 27 and 44, and paragraph 47 of schedule 6, comply with European Community law and with the European convention on human rights.

As originally drafted, the provisions would have required that only the person involved in the lead case--the case that leads to a reinterpretation of the law by a commissioner or a court--would have any increase in their benefit entitlement paid without any restriction. All others who are affected by the new interpretation of the law would have had any increase paid from a common date set--the date of the determination in the lead case.

Mr. Burns: In the light of debates on the Bill in another place, why is the Minister so confident that the provisions will comply with the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights? On what evidence has he based that conclusion?

Mr. Bradley: I am confident--because of the thorough-going nature of the debates in the other place, and the expertise that has been applied to the matter both there and within my own Department--that the assurances that I have given will be complied with. If the hon. Gentleman has doubts on the validity of that statement, I should be very grateful if he will say how he thinks it is defective. If I am not able now to deal with his specific point on how it is defective, I shall certainly write to him about it.

Mr. Burns: On that specific narrow point, will the Minister confirm whether he has had specific meetings with officials to discuss the issue?

Mr. Bradley: I should certainly not be commending the amendments to the House if I were not satisfied, through my officials, that the information that I am providing is correct. I say again that, if the hon. Gentleman believes that there is any defect in my statement, I should be very happy to hear what it is. In the light of that information, we will reconsider the matter, and I shall write to him with a detailed response. However, he has not yet given me any details of a problem. If he wishes to record in Hansard the problem that he perceives in the statement, perhaps we will be able to deal with it.

Mr. Burns: I should like to clarify one point. In no way was I suggesting that the Minister might be less than straightforward. I should hate for him--perhaps inadvertently, in his comments--to put that on the record. I have no doubt about the Minister's integrity. However, in debates in the other place, there was a great difference of opinion and confusion about the extent and accuracy of the provisions' compliance--when it comes to the crunch--with requirements. I was simply wondering whether the Minister has more information on that matter.

Mr. Bradley: No. I merely repeat the point that--as the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is only

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too aware--all legal matters are always open to interpretation. I believe that the amendments will ensure compliance with European law. I am not suggesting that I am an expert in the field; I rely on advice on those matters. If the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) or any other Opposition Member thinks that there is a specific defect that I am not dealing with, I should be grateful to be told what it is. I shall deal with the point in writing, and try to provide further assurance. Conversely, if the information shows that we should reconsider the matter, that will be done.

In no sense am I trying to mislead the House. I am merely trying to state what we believe to be the case. The matter has been considered both in the House and in another place, and I am moving and speaking to the amendments on that basis.

The amendments will ensure that restrictions on arrears will not apply to other cases that are being appealed or to claims or applications that are held up by the Secretary of State while awaiting the outcome of lead cases. I say again that I believe that the provisions are in compliance with the requirements of European Community law and the European convention on human rights--although I should be happy for the matter to be debated further if there are views to the contrary.

With those assurances, I commend the amendments to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 32 to 37 agreed to.

Clause 38

Review of decisions


Lords amendment: No. 38, in page 24, line 12, after ("relates") insert--
("(aa) may review such a determination on the ground that the person who applied for the payment to which the determination relates misrepresented, or failed to disclose, any material fact;")

Mr. Denham: I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 39 to 43, 79, 80 and 92.

Mr. Denham: These are technical amendments to clauses 38 and 73, which deal with the social fund. Although they are essentially drafting changes to clarify matters that the House has already discussed, it may assist the House if I briefly remind hon. Members how the social fund measures in the Bill fit together to form a coherent package of improvements.

6 pm

The simplification of budgeting loans in clause 69, the ability to recover social fund overpayments in clause 73, and their associated review procedures in clause 38 all represent further significant steps towards our goal of achieving an active, modern service. Their combined effect will be to make the social fund system more user friendly for the customer, more efficient for staff to administer and more secure for the taxpayer.

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Amendments Nos. 38, 39 and 41 to clause 38 clarify the review procedure for dealing with discretionary social fund overpayments. Amendments Nos. 40, 42 and 43 are consequential technical changes, which again ensure that "appropriate officers" and social fund inspectors need only follow the special review procedures when they are reviewing determinations on the grounds that the applicant misrepresented or failed to disclose information. I should make it clear that nothing in these amendments affects the applicant's right to apply for a review, either of the original determination in his case or of the determination that there has been an overpayment.

Amendments Nos. 79 and 80 are technical amendments to clause 73. Amendment No. 80 tidies up the legislation, and amendment No. 92 ensures that the new discretionary social fund review procedures to support the budgeting loans scheme and the recovery of overpayments can be operated by social fund officers before the introduction of appropriate officers under part I of the Bill.

As a result of the measures in the Bill and of the amendments before the House, the social fund will in future be simpler to understand and more cost-effective to administer; it will also be seen actively to support people back into work, and be based on integrity and honesty.

I commend the amendment to the House.

Mr. Letwin: I shall attempt to remember that you are in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that I begin my remarks with you in the Chair, rather than in the presence of Madam Speaker.

This set of amendments constitutes a set of dogs that have not barked or a set of Ministers who have not listened--an extreme example of the latter phenomenon, I fear. Clause 38 was much debated in Committee. It was perhaps not as well debated by the Opposition as it should have been because it was I who spoke. However, having read my remarks, I find that although they were not as elegant or eloquent as perhaps they should have been, they had the great merit of being true. They remain true, alas, because nothing has been done to remedy the great deficiencies that were then observed in clause 38, which are indeed symptomatic of the deficiencies that run through the Bill, to which attention was also drawn many times by my colleagues and which were also highlighted in another place.

Let us first consider clause 38(1)(a). It states that a review of a social fund determination shall be made


The Minister may recall that, with some assistance from the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), we drew attention to the question whether there ought to be a time limit which, as the Minister made clear, would have affected the length of time that the Government could take before they instituted a review without an application from a customer.

On that occasion, the Minister took no heed of the request. We are told that this is a listening and pragmatic Government, so one would have expected that between the time of our debates in Committee and the Bill entering another place, Ministers would have had time to reconsider and would have seen the justice of a 28-day time limit, in those circumstances at least. No such luck--unless my eyes deceive me, there is not the slightest reference to a time limit in the multitude of amendments

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to clause 38. No luck, no listening, no pragmatism. That will affect individuals who will find themselves being reviewed, perhaps long after the fact, without any means of responding--unless the Government do exactly what the Minister said they would do when the issue was raised in Committee.

The Minister said:


By that he meant:


    "In the majority of cases, 28 days will give claimants ample time".--[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 18 November 1997; c. 367.]

He made it clear that he intended to introduce regulations that would set a 28-day limit.

We are now in an extraordinary situation. The Minister accepted the justice of the claim that there ought to be a time limit and said that he would bring forward regulations to deal with it, but, in the intervening months, he has not put before this House or their lordships a draft--


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