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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Social Security and Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2000

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 7 June 2000

[Mr John Cummings in the Chair]

Draft Social Security and Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2000

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security and Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2000.

These regulations reflect our experience of working with the new DMA—decision-making and appeals—processes for more than six months. The package is purely technical, designed to deliver better administrative processes and improved client service. At the same time, we are taking the opportunity to make some overdue amendments in other areas. I make it clear that all the changes are either technical or beneficial to claimants.

The changes can be divided into three parts: first-tier decision making, which includes the amendments dealing with revision and supersession before an appeal is made; appeals themselves; and miscellaneous changes.

The amendments relating to first-tier appeals can be broken down into two categories: first, the clarification or tidying-up of existing provisions to put the policy intention beyond doubt; and, secondly, substantive changes aimed at supplementing the policy intention. The key substantive changes include the redefining of ``official error'' in regulation 14. It puts beyond doubt the relationship between sections 9 and 27 of the Social Security Act 1998. The original definition had caused confusion for staff and welfare groups. More significantly, there was the possibility of clients being penalised where no penalty was intended. The amendment ensures that that will not occur.

An equally important change will result from the amendments to regulations 17(b) and (e). Under the current provisions, where the Secretary of State identifies an advantageous change of circumstances, the increased benefit will be paid only from the date on which he makes his superseding decision. However, it is not always possible for the Secretary of State to make the superseding decision close to the date on which he identifies the change. That could lead to loss of benefit during the intervening period. The amendment ensures that there is no loss, because it provides that benefit will be paid from the date on which the Secretary of State commences action to supersede the existing decision. The amendment is wholly beneficial.

In regulation 17 (c), the existing provisions allow the Secretary of State to supersede a decision of a tribunal or a commissioner because of information that might have been withheld deliberately or by mistake. In the current regulations there is no special provision for disability or incapacity benefit claimants. That potential discrimination was not intended when the regulations were drafted, and the amendment will ensure equal treatment for those benefits. Again, the amendment is beneficial.

On appeals, the aim of the DMA regulations is to ensure that tribunals have the expertise necessary to deal with the range of issues that come before them. These amendments enhance the appeal service's ability to do that. First, we will ensure that an appeal which concerns an industrial accident declaration only—that is, where there is no claim for benefit and no medical input is required—can be heard by a legally qualified panel member sitting alone. Currently the tribunal must also include a consultant which, in such cases, would be a waste of the consultant's time.

Secondly, a change is being made to put it beyond doubt that misconceived appeals, which are determined as preliminary issues, should always be heard by a single legally qualified panel member. Finally, we are re-enacting the adjudication provision, which precludes a medically qualified panel member who has had involvement as an adviser at an earlier stage of a case from sitting on any subsequent tribunal hearing. That will remove any issue of bias or conflict of interest.

Another key change under the DMA process was the extension of the striking-out provision. Under the previous adjudication system an appeal could be struck out only for ``want of prosecution''—that is, where the appellant had failed to pursue the appeal in good time, or failed to comply with a direction made by the chairman or clerk. Under the DMA process, this has been extended to include out-of-jurisdiction and misconceived appeals. To balance that extension, detailed provision was made for the reinstatement of a struck-out appeal. Unfortunately, the latter provision was flawed: it did not cover all instances involving misconceived appeals. The amendment will reinstate the position, so that all misconceived appeals are covered. This was simply a drafting error in the regulations.

Of the other DMA-related changes—designed to help the appeal service to manage and handle appeals—some key points should be noted. First, tribunal chairmen, as was always the intention, need not produce a full written statement of reasons for their decision as a matter of course, but only on request. Secondly, when the time for making a late application for such a statement or seeking leave to appeal to the commissioners is calculated, the time elapsed if someone has sought to have the decision corrected or set aside should be ignored. That allows claimants to take the different routes that the process provides without being penalised for doing so because of the time limits. Thirdly, where a single panel member is sitting alone and believes that it would be prudent to have an additional member present, he can do so. Examples might be cases in which an appellant is thought to be potentially violent, or where a physical examination is required.

In the final category, we are modifying the DMA process in relation to industrial injuries scheme benefits. These are old benefits and the rules governing them do not fit the new processes easily. The amendments in this package match the rules to the best extent possible and ensure that the DMA principles are adhered to. They give appeal rights to those who have had industrial injuries and whose conditions are worsening—cases of recrudescence—and they give the right to appeal on the percentage or level of disablement.

We are also taking the opportunity to consolidate the rules on the effective date of superseding decisions made following a change of circumstances. To use lay person's language, which I always prefer, it means that we are taking rules that have become scattered around the DMA body of law and putting them into the same place, thus making it easier for people to find them.

Regulations 6 to 13 of the package provide for amendments to be made in relation to child support. They bring the child support regulations into line with those for other benefits and facilitate smooth decision making in what might be difficult circumstances.

The most important change regularises provisions in the claims and payments regulations which underpin linked benefits—benefits that depend on the award of another benefit. The existing provisions create what are known as payment gaps, which occur when benefits which should link to create a seamless entitlement do not. Currently the agencies use a variety of methods to close the gap—for example, they stockpile claims and special payments—but these are inefficient and far from watertight. The amendments are designed to provide a regulated means of ensuring that clients automatically get their full and proper entitlement to benefits without having to make a claim for a special payment where the linking has broken down through no fault of theirs.

DMA has already had a significant positive impact on the way in which both the agencies and the appeal service handle disputes and appeals, but there is always room for improvement. This package represents the product of our experience of working with the system in a live environment. It irons out some of the kinks and we have taken the opportunity to put right a few long-standing problems—the payment gaps, for example. The changes are all technical, to ensure that woolly wording is put beyond doubt, or they are beneficial to claimants, and I commend them to the Committee.

4.39 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I do not wish to take the sense of tension and excitement away from this Committee, but the Conservative party does not oppose the regulations. As the Minister rightly says, these are technical changes which are, by and large, beneficial. However, there are several small points on which I would like some clarification.

I welcome the move to include all relevant and qualifying benefits and away from such a rigid regime. I also welcome the 10-day window, which is sensible. However, I am not entirely sure about the changes in the definition of ``official error''. I do not understand the distinction between errors of law and official errors. I have received some advice on the matter which I will share with the Committee because it is enlightening. It states:

    ``Legal advice was that all errors of law may be official errors, but not all official errors are errors of law.''

If I were to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who is a senior member of our Whips Office, when the next Division was to take place, he would tell me, ``When the bell rings''. That definition plainly falls within that category.

I shall tell the Minister my understanding of the position. Let us suppose that an appeal in a so-called ``lookalike case'' is stayed pending the outcome of the main case. If the main case is decided in the claimant's favour, the lookalike case must be decided in the same way. Under current regulations, the decision on appeal could be revised; but if we make one of these key changes, the arrears will be limited to the date of the commissioner's decision. If the appeal is heard there would be not such limitation and the claimant would lose out because he could not pursue the original appeal. That would contravene the European convention on human rights. Is that what the changes are meant to address? Have I understood the position?


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