Draft Housing Support Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

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Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): The Liberal Democrats have likewise few quibbles with the order. However, I must observe that today's proceedings are a rather poor substitute for the proper scrutiny that would be provided by the Legislative

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Assembly. Every time we have a Committee such as this, that point is reinforced.

I have two points to make about the drafting of the order. First, article 4(5) refers to

    ''the circumstances in which the whole or any part of a grant must be repaid to the Executive.''

I might be nitpicking, but a grant that must be repaid is not a grant and should be termed a loan. Is there any reason why there is no provision for loans as opposed to grants?

Secondly, for clarification, can the Minister tell me whether a mechanism exists by which a decision under the terms of the order could be the subject of appeal? The order does not provide a mechanism for appeal, so the only way one could appeal is through the formal tribunal system, and for most benefits other stages must be passed through before entering that. It seems unnecessarily cumbersome to go straight from the initial decision into the tribunal system.

4.47 pm

Mr. Browne: I thank both hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. Their comments, although short, were to the point and indicated the importance of the order. I am grateful to the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats for their support for the order. New measures in similar terms for the rest of the United Kingdom have also been supported by both parties. We all share the same objective of finding a flexible way of providing financial support to people who need services where they live to support them in independent living. It is a common objective to allow people who suffer from one disability or another to lead as normal a life in the community as possible.

I shall try to deal adequately with the hon. Members' points. In the event that I do not, I shall be happy to write to them. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) makes a general point with which we all agree: dealing with an Order in Council in a Committee Room in this House is no substitute for the scrutiny of legislation by the democratically elected Assembly of Northern Ireland. He has heard me say before that my objective as a Northern Ireland Minister is to contribute to processes that see the democratically elected Assembly reinstated in Northern Ireland. I have said a hundred times that I am devolutionist to the core, and during all my political life in Scotland I have fought for devolution, so I am hardly likely to undermine that as a Minister for Northern Ireland.

I want to see the Assembly restored, but simply wishing it will not see it realised. Work must be done to restore the confidence and trust of the people of Northern Ireland so that the Executive, made up of democratically elected Northern Ireland politicians who are answerable to an Assembly made up of others, can be reinstated. The hon. Gentleman shares that view, and I understand why he wants to put his remarks on record.

A point about the measure that I dealt with only in shorthand in my introductory speech is that at least we

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have the benefit of a Bill that was introduced by a Minister in that Executive, that was debated and broadly supported by the Assembly and that has been scrutinised and amended. We may not be able to say that about other legislation that comes before the House by this procedure in the coming months.

The other side of the coin, reflecting the wishes of the people and the politicians of Northern Ireland, is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his predecessor gave a very clear undertaking that we would seek to deliver legislation in as near a form as possible to what would have emanated from the Assembly so that the momentum of government and the broad grain of the programme for government in Northern Ireland would be maintained. The people of Northern Ireland are clearly disadvantaged in that they are not governed by their own politicians in a devolved manner, but we are trying to minimise the inconvenience to them and to maintain the momentum. I believe that we are broadly supported in that by the official Opposition and by the Liberal Democrats.

Of the points raised by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) on articles 3, 4 and 7, I can probably deal with the one on article 7 most quickly. I referred in my introductory speech to disclosure and the provisions in the article that are designed to reflect the requirements of data protection legislation. He asked whether the definition of lawful disclosure, which necessarily includes courts and tribunals, might lead to vulnerability of the people to whom the measure relates. I am bound to say that it is very unlikely that those who will administer the scheme in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive will have that information or will institute proceedings before a tribunal in a capricious manner. It is very unlikely that the holders of the information would generate such vulnerability.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I can assure him that the information will be protected to the appropriate standard should someone else seek to exploit it. I can give him that assurance, because any tribunal that I can think of that might be relevant will have rules of procedure that will protect disclosure of information in just such circumstances. I am satisfied that the Housing Executive would instruct its lawyers such that no capricious litigation by tribunal that was designed to uncover information about people would be allowed to achieve that objective.

Mr. Taylor: The Minister is reassuring me, but I would like to ask him about extreme cases—good planning is based on covering such cases. If it came to his attention that there was an imminent prospect of disclosure that he thought undesirable, would he be prepared to intervene with a public interest immunity certificate? He may reply to me by letter, if he wishes.

Mr. Browne: I will check what I am about to say and write to all members of the Committee if it requires augmentation. The reference to tribunals in article 7 is limited to those that relate to income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance. It would be exceptional in such circumstances for information to be provided to the sort of person that

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the hon. Gentleman fears might use the process in an inappropriate fashion.

I believe that I can safely say that no third party has a right to institute such proceedings. The proceedings are likely to be between the person who is receiving the supported services—probably at their instigation—and a Government agency, most likely a part of the Social Security Agency. I cannot think of circumstances in which information is likely to enter the public domain through such a tribunal in the way in which the hon. Gentleman suggests. However, I shall check that and write to him and other members of the Committee if that answer is not comprehensive.

Mr. Taylor: The Minister has speculated very fairly on how such a thing might come about. I shall make a suggestion. His letter will probably show that it is an inappropriate suggestion or that I have slightly missed the point. In that case, I will value the letter the more because I shall be the wiser for having read it. If the assisted person is an employer—that is not impossible—and an employee of the assisted person brings proceedings before an employment tribunal for wrongful dismissal, there may be a call for information that takes us to the very margins of the data protections that we are talking about.

Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that imaginative point. I can reassure him that I cannot envisage any circumstances in which a person in the capacity of an employer would be an assisted person under housing support. I suppose that one should never say that such things are impossible, but it is very unlikely.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the scrutiny of the activities of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in relation to article 3. He sought an assurance that the very broad powers would be overseen. I can reassure him that the list to which he referred is designed to do the opposite of what he suggested: it is designed to specify the powers that need to be exercised for the functions to be carried out. He will know that when draftsmen draw up lists and Parliament enacts legislation that includes them, certain rules come into play in relation to statutory interpretation. Those rules tend to narrow the functions of an organisation, rather than expand them.

Giving specific functions to the Housing Executive is designed to show in a transparent fashion the powers that it needs to carry out its very important role. That is quite deliberate. Under existing legislation, the Department for Social Development also has specific powers to monitor the activities of the Housing Executive. Those powers include a power of direction. The powers will be used to ensure that, where necessary, the Housing Executive manages the fund in accordance with the order.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the definition of an eligible person in relation to article 4. He is quite right that that will need to be done by regulation. To refer back to the point made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, it is intended that the regulations will be subject to consultation, not with this House, but with the Northern Ireland Assembly. Article 5 deals with that and refers back

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to articles 3 and 4. That is an amendment that was included as a result of scrutiny by the Assembly's Social Development Committee. Article 5 indicates how we intend the appropriate consultation to take place. That consultation will ensure that the regulations meet the objectives and are not unnecessarily extensive.

I think that there is one outstanding point. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about the repayment of grants. The reference to terms and conditions and the specific inclusion of the power to request repayment in article 4(5) refers back to the previous paragraph. He will see that, under 4(4), it is envisaged that grants will be made for housing support services, subject to terms and conditions. I am sure that he would not quibble with that. He suggested that if there is a condition that in certain circumstances a grant may be required to be repaid, that grant must be more of a loan. I venture to disagree. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any situation in which a grant would be made without a condition ensuring that if, for example, an overpayment was made, the body making the grant could recover the money. That would seem to be common sense. I am sure that he would accept that we cannot always rely on the calculation being perfect—although we want to move towards that. Repayment of a grant is only ever likely to be sought if an overpayment is made. The provisions are intended to cover that eventuality. Overpayments are not planned, but they may arise.

There is also the possibility that those who are engaged to provide a service may fall down on that contractual obligation at a later stage. Given that we are dealing with public funds, it would be inappropriate, no matter how good the quality of the service, for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive not to be able to ask for repayment. This is all about getting a good service that is relevant to the grant that is made. It is about good value—best value, in fact.

I think that I have dealt with all the matters that hon. Members raised in the course of this important, if somewhat short, debate.

Mr. Carmichael: I asked about appeals. What recourse will there be in the event that an applicant is dissatisfied with the decision made on a grant?

Mr. Browne: I am sorry that I missed that point. I assure the hon. Gentleman that any appeals will be dealt with through the normal appeals procedure that applies in the legislation relating to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which already makes decisions. Because those decisions must be compliant with human rights, there has to be an appeals procedure. Moreover, there is always the backstop of the ombudsman in relation to such organisations, so in this case the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is subject to scrutiny by the Northern Ireland ombudsman. An appeals procedure already exists, and in terms of public administration its conduct is subject to scrutiny by the ombudsman if someone brings a case to his attention.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for having missed him out. I think that I have now dealt with all outstanding matters. If there are others, I undertake to

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write to members of the Committee. I have nothing further to add.

Question put and agreed to.

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    That the Committee has considered the draft Housing Support Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.

Committee rose at one minute past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Hurst, Mr. Alan (Chairman)
Barker, Gregory
Blackman, Liz
Browne, Mr.
Byers, Mr.
Carmichael, Mr.
Dawson, Mr.
Khabra, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
Merron, Gillian
Swire, Mr.
Taylor, Mr. John
Wilshire, Mr.

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Prepared 27 November 2002