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

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Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): A thought occurred to me while the Minister was speaking about regulation 14. He said that the provision to allow people to "attend" appeals by television was the result of new technology, but that did not explain

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why it was desirable. The admission of television evidence has led to trouble and difficulties in various legal tribunals and bodies, particularly because there is a qualitative difference between people seeing each other face to face in a room—with or without their jackets—and seeing each other down a video line.

Does the Minister think that that development is desirable, and does it cover other aspects of his brief? In what circumstances might it genuinely be helpful? Whose time, effort and energy, and what public money, might be saved in that way, as balanced against the fact that people would no longer come face to face with each other, which would be a loss?

4.46 pm

Malcolm Wicks: I thank hon. Members for the way in which they have approached the debate. If, as the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) implied, I can provide in a letter a detail that is not at my fingertips now, or which I cannot read now—the handwriting of people in the Department is expert, however—I will do so. That is probably the most sensible way of proceeding.

I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) for the brevity of the remarks that he made from the Opposition Front Bench. He said that he was under the impression that this was Treasury business. As a member of a spending Department, I must admit that everything seems to be Treasury business. None the less, the hon. Gentleman is welcome to contribute to the debate at any stage.

The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), from the Liberal Democrat Benches, made a number of useful points. I can assure him that our purpose is not to limit the rights of appellants but to extend their rights, albeit in technical ways, so that the appeal service works for them.

The hon. Gentleman made a wider point about changes to housing benefit administration. This debate is only about the appeal system, but I can assure him that we are making sensible changes in that regard. As the Minister responsible for housing benefit, I understand the point that the more than 400 local authorities that administer housing benefit do not like frequent changes—yet changes are necessary. Indeed, we can all be inconsistent about these matters, because some of the changes are called for by local authorities themselves.

We are now trying where possible—it is not always possible—to make changes just twice a year, in spring and autumn. In the Department I have established a regulation scrutiny group, which includes local authority representatives who help us to order the regulations that we make properly.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but as he is one of the most humane Liberal Democrat Members—[Interruption.] I know that that is not saying much, but I mean it sincerely. He will understand that when changes are made to the wider social security system—pension credits and

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integrated child tax credits are two examples that will shortly come before us—consequential changes have to be made to housing benefit. It would not be sensible to say that no change was a sensible social policy, but I understand the hon. Gentleman's general point. I shall deal with other points in correspondence, if that is helpful—I am referring to the numbers in connection with the appeal service, and the provision about striking out an appeal. I shall try to get that data to him.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley made some important points, but generously suggested that I could write to him with the details, which would indeed be the most appropriate way to deal with them.

The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) questioned the appropriateness of new technology such as video conferencing and television. In certain circumstances, it would be appropriate if a witness, perhaps for reasons of disability, could not attend a hearing on the day. Justice is done if the appeal can proceed with the help of a television link, with which people are becoming more familiar. However, we

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must still monitor usage to ensure that it safeguards the appeals system and does not handicap it.

I have assured hon. Members that I will consider the details properly, and as there may be a vote on the Floor of the House soon, I now commend the regulations to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.


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



    That the Committee has considered the draft Tax Credits (Decisions and Appeals) (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2002.—[Mr. Wicks.]

Committee rose at nine minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Taylor, David (Chairman)
Blizzard, Mr.
Clarke, Mr. Tom
Connarty, Mr.
Dean, Mrs.
Donaldson, Mr.
Henderson, Mr. Doug
Luff, Mr.
Miliband, Mr.
Singh, Mr.
Smith, Angela
Strang, Dr.
Trend, Mr.
Webb, Mr.
Wicks, Malcolm

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