Armed Forces

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Mr. Lammy: The legislation, which will bring into force the proximity of social security commissioners as the point of appeal from the PAT, is a direct consequence of Sir Andrew Leggatt's report, which was published in March 2001. It was the most comprehensive review of the tribunal system for 44 years. The report, entitled ''Tribunals for Users: One System, One Service'', recommended to Lord Chancellors that tribunals should have a second tier of appeal. To that extent, we are bringing current arrangements for armed services personnel into line with the report's recommendations.

In the report, Sir Andrew Leggatt and his committee, which was made up of distinguished members, largely reiterated established practice on legal representation, saying in paragraph 7:

    ''Tribunals are intended to provide a simple, accessible system of justice where users can represent themselves. So it is discouraging to note the growing perception that they cannot. Every effort should be made to reduce the number of cases in which legal representation is needed.

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    Logically that can only be done by seeking to ensure (a) that decision-makers give comprehensible decisions, (b) that the Tribunals Service provides users with requisite information, (c) that voluntary and other advice groups are funded so that they can offer legal advice, and (d) that the tribunal chairmen are trained to afford such assistance as they legitimately can''.

To that extent, I reassure hon. Members that the social security commissioners will act in that way. They will be able to bring to bear the specialism that they have built up, and people will be able to represent themselves.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): What the Minister says is true in theory, but unfortunately not in practice. For example, in social security tribunals, the average success rate of appellants without advocacy is about 50 per cent. My office runs an advocacy service for social security appellants and our success rate is 95 per cent. We are not lawyers, although we are probably far more effective in this context than they are.

A sensible advocacy service is needed—it does not have to have bells and whistles or to cost a lot. I hope the Minister will assure us that reasonable advocacy arrangements can be provided.

9.15 am

Mr. Lammy: In response to my hon. Friend's point, we should put the matter in context. Under the new arrangements, the social security commissioners will replace the High Court, which was the only point of appeal from the PAT. For the first time, there will now be a further right of appeal to the higher courts—the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. Only about 20 cases a year go beyond the PAT and more than two-thirds of them are appealed on the papers, not at oral hearings, although people can request a hearing should they need one.

As I said, the nature of our tribunal system is such that people should be able to represent themselves informally. My hon. Friend will know from experience that chairmen and commissioners conduct tribunals in an inquisitorial way, to counter the adversarial nature of the court system. He will also know that the tribunal system arose after the war with the growth of the state. The Attlee Labour Government set up the tribunals to make it easier for specialism to grow in particular sectors of the state, for example in benefits, employment and in the area that we are discussing. Sir Andrew Leggatt recommended that there should be a second tier of appeal to correct decisions that tribunals get wrong.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab): I understand and accept much of what my hon. Friend says, at least about the principle of self-representation, but I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) that representation advocacy that lacks bells and whistles has its merits. In my modest experience, it increases people's success at other types of tribunal. There would be nothing to prevent ex-members of the armed forces being represented at the PAT, as they would be at an

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industrial tribunal, by their new trade union or the trade union of which they were a member while in the services, even though the MOD did not recognise it.

Mr. Lammy: In an oral hearing before a tribunal or in a written application, the applicant relies on the community legal service for assistance in preparing the case, and we heard about the wonderful role played by the British Legion in that respect. I emphasise that we are talking about a few cases that are appealed upwards. Legal help is available for those who need it, but in essence tribunals are intended to operate without legal counsel.

I should also say that in establishing the new arrangements, we expect the social security commissioners to be sitting specifically as pensions appeal commissioners, as is appropriate. They have expertise, as seven of the social security commissioners have experience of the pensions appeal tribunal and the important and special matters that the hon. Member for Aldershot was keen to illustrate. However, the Government are sympathetic to the thrust of the amendment.

John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab): Like some of my hon. Friends, I have concerns about the issue. It has been predicted that the number of cases will rise, which may or may not be true. Will the Minister undertake to monitor the number of cases and to return to the question if there is a change in their number or nature?

Mr. Lammy: The pensions appeal tribunal case load has been small compared with the other matters that social security commissioners consider, including child support, decisions for vulnerable lone parents, general pension matters for older people and appeals on serious accidents at work. The commissioners are specialists, and the number of appeals in the other areas is significantly higher than in pensions appeals tribunals. I am happy to keep an eye on the figures in the next few years to see how the new system is working and to record them in Hansard as is appropriate. However, all the signs are that the numbers will remain about the same, that the necessary specialism lies in the tribunal and that legal help is available to those who need it.

As I have said, the amendment has drawn attention to a drafting oversight whereby the expenses of regime of the commissioners has not been extended to appeals to the PAT. We have responded with a Government amendment, and an amendment to the Social Security Act 1998 is to be included in clause 7, which deals with appeals and amendments. I shall discuss it at the relevant time.

Given my comments, I invite the hon. Member for Aldershot to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Howarth: I am sure that Members on both sides of the Committee are grateful to the Minister for his positive response to our expressions of concern. It is significant that three Labour Members made contributions and stated their concern.

I am grateful to the Minister for acknowledging the merit in our case and for undertaking to examine it. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown made a

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telling point in noting that there was a 50 per cent. success rate in cases without an advocate while the rate was bumped up to 95 per cent. with an advocate. I am not sure what form of advocacy the hon. Gentleman was offering and whether it was through his parliamentary office or just himself. I am sure that he would not have been on commission for that, but I am equally sure that his constituents, for whom he secured such success, would have been more than willing to have made some contribution towards his office cost allowance, although we know that that is not possible. It was, however a turning point. We welcome the fact that the Minister has taken the matter on board.

It would be helpful to know how many commissioners have had service experience. It would also be interesting for the Committee to know whether the Minister intends to give some sort of instruction that would ensure that those hearing the appeals are familiar with the particular circumstances that affect ex-service personnel. I hope that the Minister will respond to those points.

The Minister also mentioned that assistance was available, and set out the details on accommodation, travel and subsistence. I am not sure what one would get in London for less than five quid for eight hours of attendance—it might buy a cappuccino. The important point, however, is that the information that the Minister gave does not appear to be on the Veterans Agency website. Given that the Minister for Veterans is sitting beside the Minister from the Department for Constitutional Affairs, perhaps the two Ministers might get together during the break in our proceedings, to ascertain whether it might be possible for the website to incorporate some of the information that was given to the Committee this morning. That might help the appellants and the Royal British Legion.

I agree with the Minister's statement that he does not want to encourage legal representation at tribunals. That would be a retrograde step. I am in favour of keeping lawyers out of as much as possible, given the amount that they charge. Having had personal experience of such matters, I believe that lawyers are a very expensive commodity.

I shall declare an interest, although I do not have to, and say that my son has just joined that profession. He has done so only out of affection for his father, however, to ensure that he is able to maintain his father in retirement in the style to which he would otherwise not be able to become accustomed, after having served a number of years in the House of Commons. It would therefore be unfair of me to denigrate the legal profession. None the less, lawyers are expensive and I suspect that there is a degree of common ground on both sides of the Committee that it would be better for the tribunals if appellants did not have legal representation.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving the Committee the assurance that he will look into these matters. I hope that, after discussion with the Minister for Veterans, he will put some information on the

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website. I also hope that he will consider the possibility of assisting the Royal British Legion through some sort of specific arrangement, such as a grant in aid. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) made the fair point that we do not want to have a blank cheque, so that everyone is encouraged to lodge appeals because there is Government money available.

As we in the Committee know, there is no such thing as Government money: the money is taxpayers' money to which we and all our constituents have contributed. Ministers might like to consider the possibility of making such a grant in aid, which could be specifically ring-fenced, to assist the RBL and others who are engaged in that charitable work.

On the basis of the constructive response that the Minister has given to the Committee, and bearing in mind that we have tabled other amendments in which such matters will also be addressed, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

 
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