Memorandum submitted by Mencap (SS 11)
1. The SSAC has traditionally fulfilled
a number of formal and informal roles, which have depended on
(a) its strong links with, but independence from, the Department
and (b) its ability to look both at the detail of a complex subject
and the broader strategy. It has on the whole been not a committee
of social security experts but a committee of people who are well
informed, can appreciate consumer experience and can see the wider
pictureboth in policy and in process/information terms.
2. The public face of the SSAC is found
in its published reports. This is not the sole extent of its work,
Similarly, it has no formal role in relation to business which
is not the business of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland
social security departments; but does get consulted on an informal
basis. It has and exercises the right to take the initiative in
3. The agenda for welfare reform, the frequency
of social security legislation and of SSAC-exempt regulations
stemming from that legislation, and the fragmentation of both
the social security system and the Department, have made it more
difficult for the Committee to fulfil its role.
4. There is a need for an independent well-informed
social security scrutiny and advisory body to which representative
organisations and individuals have appropriate right of access.
A redefinition of the SSAC role to give it formal responsibility
across the whole range of social security issues, reporting to
the relevant Ministers irrespective of their Departments, would
5. The Committee's role has changed since
it was set up, but it also changes from year to year according
to the extent of its "bread and butter" work on regulations,
and now its work on information. The Committee has used its spare
time effectively to undertake policy reviews on its own initiative,
as well as undertaking reviews at the request of the Department.
6. To the outside observer, the value of
the Committee's work has been mainly:
Its ability to provide independent
scrutiny of regulations, whether or not there is then a formal
consultation process. This requires the Department to explain
what is intended, and can lead to amendment of proposals before
presentation to Parliamentwhere the process of scrutiny
of regulations would otherwise be even less satisfactory!
Its provision of a process for collecting
and analysing and debating comment where there is formal consultation
on regulations, and drawing balanced comments and a Departmental
response out of what in isolation might seem partisan reactions.
Its attention to the Northern Ireland
dimension, which can sometimes be different as well as important.
Its ability to relate different initiatives
over time and over subjects, so that particular regulations and
particular benefits are not considered in isolation. (With experience,
the Committee is good at asking "Why X here, when Z there?".)
The existence of the SSAC Secretariat,
in support of the Chairman and Committee, as a sort of standing
scrutiny group which allows officials to question other officials
in a way that might well be missing if there were no SSAC.
Its provision of a "neutral"
policy forum to look at important issues which may not be high
on the Departmental priority list or at the top of the campaigning
agenda of external groups.
Its provision of a "neutral"
reference point for staff outside HQ (on local visits) and for
Ministers and Senior Officers (in formal briefings or informal
Its role between the special interest
groups of various kinds and the Department, which allows issues
to be explored non-confrontationally.
7. On occasions, the Committee has scored
visible "hits" of greater or lesser significance in
getting regulations changed or abandoned, but the process which
it leads has not infrequently been useful in a less publicly visible
way. From a public and Parliamentary point of view, the fact that
issues have been debated publicly in an SSAC report on regulations
or an independent policy report, is helpful even if the Government
has chosen to re-affirm rather than change its policies.
8. When the Committee started, it provided
the opportunity for a fairly comprehensive overview of social
security (excluding industrial injuries, war pensions, and what
was then attendance allowance). For the first time, it allowed
contributory, non-contributory and means-tested benefits, and
contributions, to be looked at by the same body.
9. Since then, the hiving off of contributions
and of what are now tax credits to the Inland Revenue, has added
to the range of issues for which the SSAC is not directly responsible
because they fall in whole or in part to other Government Departments.
As with matters affecting the borderline between eg social security
and education, this has not prevented involvement of the SSAC.
The involvement has been on a sort of grace and favour basis.
10. The SSAC had had no role in relation
to matters that fall to Parliament because they are embodied in
legislation. It has not necessarily had any role in major policy
initiatives, which precede or do not require legislation. Regulations
made in the wake of fresh legislation have usually not been formally
referred because the policy is held to be subject to political
11. The splitting of the Department into
Agencies does not directly affect the SSAC's policy role, since
the Agencies do not determine policy. However, oversight of policy
as expressed in practice becomes more complex as a result of the
splits and the deliberate attempt to create specific cultures
and customer relations systems.
12. Customers of the system are looking
for reasonable consistency and as much simplicity as appropriately
addressing complex needs allows. An example is the issue of what
changes in financial circumstances have to be reported for different
purposes. This consistency and (reasonable) simplicity are now
harder for Ministers to achieve and maintain.
13. It could be of benefit to customers,
Ministers, officials and Parliament, if one independent body had
a scrutiny and advisory responsibility across the whole range
of social security, in both its cash benefit and its tax credit
forms, and including the interplay with education, employment,
immigration, etc. Nor is it essential that Parliamentary debate
should divert issues from the SSAC. At the end of the day, Ministers
and Parliament, and not the SSAC, will take decisions; but they
could benefit from independent and well-informed advicedrawing
where appropriate on outside expertise. Legislation would be needed
to give statutory backing to this unrestricted remit; but much
the same thing could be achieved in the meantime by inter-Ministerial
E B McGinnis