Select Committee on Work and Pensions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 7

Memorandum submitted by Mencap (SS 11)

SUMMARY

  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 picture—both 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 giving advice.

  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 be welcome.

SSAC—ROLE AND FUTURE

  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 Parliament—where 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 contact).

    —  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 scrutiny.

  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 advice—drawing 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 agreement.

E B McGinnis

Special Adviser

August 2002


 
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