Standing Committee F
Thursday 3 February 2000
[Sir David Madel in the Chair]
The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): On a point of order, Sir David. This morning I promised the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) that I would make a brief statement about the state second pension's rebate structure.
The hon. Lady will be aware that the consultation process finished as recently as 14 January. We published a paper in November that outlined two possible options, and we have decided to implement the second option, which is contained in paragraph 12 of the consultation paper. I shall not go into detail at this point because it would be inappropriate to do so. However, before the end of this afternoon's sitting I shall make available to Committee members a brief note--it runs to no more than a couple of pages--about the proposal, which I hope will be helpful.
We expect, but we are not certain, that one or more new clauses will be involved. The parliamentary counsel will receive instructions today to do the drafting, when clearance has been sorted out. I am told that the new clauses will be very complex, but we hope and expect to table them next week. We shall discuss those new clauses near the end of our proceedings. It will be useful for Committee members to know which option the Government are going for before we begin the detailed debates next week.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I thank the Minister for that brief statement. I am sure that the new clauses will be extraordinarily complex. I am also grateful to him for the suggestion, with which I hope you will agree, Sir David, that the new clauses will be debated at the end of the Bill, when we have finished considering the clauses. The thought of having to discuss those new clauses and amendments together is more than a little daunting. I make a plea for the new clauses to be explained to us using high-tech slides, but I suspect that that is too much to ask for.
Amendment moved [this day]: No. 221, in page 12, line 8, after 'inspector', insert
'shall receive full training and'.--[Mr. Pickles.]
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 222, in page 12, line 13, after 'entry', insert
'in the presence of the occupier'.
No. 223, in page 12, line 15, leave out 'as he considers' and insert
'that is deemed reasonably'.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham may be worried about complex matters that are still to come, but I assure her that these amendments are a model of simplicity. I shall not need flick charts or an overhead projector to make my points.
Before we broke for luncheon, I was discussing amendment No. 221, which would require the inspector to "receive full training". I discussed the nature of that training, explained that inspectors will have to enter into difficult and occasionally daunting environments in which some parties may be partisan to the arrangements, and suggested that some relevant training would not go amiss.
Amendment No. 222 would protect the rights of the employer, who shares, with institutions, a right of privacy. Those Committee members who are distinguished lawyers--my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) arrives in the Committee Room on cue, but world weary as ever--will know that judges are taking an interest in the concept of institutional privacy. This probing amendment is intended to establish what the Government will do about entry into another person's premises.
We are a little concerned about the issue that is raised in amendment No. 223. The amendment would take out the words "as he considers" and insert "that is deemed reasonably", which is clearly a difference of emphasis and style, and, more importantly, substance.
If amendments Nos. 221 or 222 are not accepted, we cannot assume that an inspector will be trained. Why should it be left up to an untrained inspector to decide what is reasonably appropriate in carrying out his inquiries? The Secretary of State or inspector should decide what information is necessary, but not what examination and inquiry is appropriate.
As we have repeatedly emphasised, we are trying to ensure that the Bill works well. The last thing we want is for the Child Support Agency, which is enjoying an improvement in its image, to return to the old days, and there is a risk that the clause may be used to bring the CSA into disrepute.
We would like the Parliamentary Under-Secretary to give a robust response to these important amendments.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): I hope that I shall be able to answer hon. Members' questions about clause 13.
The clause provides new terms of appointment for child support inspectors. The current scheme relies on an enormous amount of information being gathered to enable a maintenance assessment to be made. Where it has not been possible to obtain information from parents, a child support inspector may be sent out to gather the required information.
The Bill will change the current system whereby inspectors are allowed to be appointed only on a case-by-case basis, rather than be generally available and sent off to deal with cases as they are required. That system makes it hard to maintain a dedicated group of inspectors who acquire expertise as well as training so as to get better at their jobs. It is a cumbersome part of the Child Support Act 1991 and has led to great difficulties in ensuring that inspectors can be successful.
An inspector may visit an employer's premises or the premises from which a non-resident parent conducts his business. He may also visit the premises of a person whom he has reasonable grounds for suspecting holds information about a non-resident parent acquired in the course of his own business, such as an accountant. He may question anyone he finds there and ask to see any documents. Obstructing an inspector carries a fine of up to £1,000.
The amendments would change the way in which inspectors are trained, the way in which their inspections are carried out and the basis on which they can take place. We want to make it easier and less cumbersome for the CSA to use its inspector service, and that is what clause 13 is intended to achieve.
I assure the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that no inspectors go out on behalf of the CSA without having had training.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Human rights training.
Angela Eagle: I shall deal with that in a moment. We do not send untrained people out to do potentially hazardous or difficult jobs. Clearly, inspecting is such a job. Inspectors receive full training. Currently, they are of at least executive officer grade and have a wealth of interviewing experience.
I shall give Opposition Members a quick flavour of the training that inspectors currently receive. They are trained in basic maintenance assessment calculation, which is clearly a complex issue requiring a fair degree of training, although it is hoped that less will be required once the Bill is on the statute book Inspectors are also trained in the use of lap top computers, which prove useful when they are inspecting. I doubt whether many members of the Committee require assertiveness training, but inspectors attend such courses before they begin working. On a more serious note, they receive potentially aggressive situation awareness training--expertise that we acquire, either informally or formally. They are also trained to deal with good cause situations when people may be upset and worried. They are fully trained to conduct interviews under caution, as per the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Police (Scotland) Act 1967.
Mr. Pickles: What form does that training take? Is it a residential course that lasts for weeks, or a little chat over tea when they arrive?
Angela Eagle: Perhaps I should send the hon. Gentleman videos, so that he would have a better idea of what goes on. The training takes various forms, but I can assure him that it does not consist of a chat over a cup of tea. The training that is provided for people who undertake these difficult and potentially arduous jobs is very professional. If the hon. Gentleman wants that degree of detail, I shall write to him.
The current training programme is considered sufficient for part-time inspectors, but the additional powers needed to appoint full-time inspectors cast it in a different light. I can assure the Committee that, once the Bill is enacted, training requirements will be fully re-evaluated in the light of the evolving role of child support inspectors.
Amendment No. 222 would ensure that entry into the building that is to be inspected can be obtained only
"in the presence of the occupier".
Inspectors do not possess the power to obtain entry by force, and access to carry out an inspection must be granted. We consider it reasonable that a responsible employee may grant access to the building for an inspection to take place. That will avoid needlessly delaying inspectors while the occupier himself is located.
Mrs. Lait: On a small point, under the clause, will an inspector notify an employer of his intention to inspect, or will surprise visits be paid?
Angela Eagle: The intention is not to surprise anyone or to conduct police-style raids, but to make arrangements in advance so that information on, say, earnings can be obtained. Ample warning should be given before the inspector arrives.
Amendment No. 223 would change the basis on which an inspector could enter buildings and conduct inquiries. Under the clause, he will be allowed to carry out such inspections as he considers "appropriate". If the amendment were accepted, he would carry out only such as inspections as are deemed "reasonably" appropriate.
The measures in the clause and in the Bill in general form an overall picture. They strike a balance between the need to investigate and detect fraud and error, and the individual's right to privacy. It is important to look at that picture as a whole.