Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 5:

Page 2, line 17, at end insert:
("(7) Schedule 4A has effect in relation to departure directions.").

The noble Lord said: The amendment will help me to restore the balance of the average time of my speeches. It is a minor but necessary drafting repair which picks up a stitch which was dropped by the draftsman. It inserts a new subsection into the new Section 28A as introduced by Clause 1 of the Bill.

The new Schedule 4A to the 1991 Act is inserted by subsection (2) of Clause 1 of the Bill but no mention of it is made, as it should be, by the new Section 28A of the 1991 Act that has been inserted by subsection (1) of Clause 1. The amendment rectifies the omission. I commend it to the Committee.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: I hope that this is not an inconvenient moment to make a short intervention on a technical point. By virtue of the office of the noble Lord, we have had today a most helpful document completing the 1991 Act with this Bill and with the intermediate regulations.

My question is: would it not be possible and desirable for some such document to take its place in the Bill as a Keeling schedule? Perhaps the noble Lord will be good enough to discuss the matter with the draftsman. It is true that it would incorporate regulations as well as the 1991 Act. But I do not think that that is really a conclusive argument against the Keeling schedule. Perhaps the noble Lord will be good enough to say that he will take the matter up with the draftsman.

19 Jun 1995 : Column 51

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am happy to say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that I shall discuss his specific point with the draftsman. I thank him for the welcome he gave to the document that we produced in order to show the complete picture, if Members of the Committee agree. The only slight problem is that I do not seem to have brought my copy with me.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 1 [Departure Directions]:

Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 6:

Page 24, line 36, at end insert:
("( ) Where a departure application is referred to a child support appeal tribunal under section 28D(1) (b) and the application is heard by a chairman sitting alone, any qualifying person aggrieved by the decision may appeal under section 28H as though the decision were a decision of the Secretary of State.").

The noble Lord said: With Amendment No. 6, we deal with the situation where the tribunal chairman sits alone. The amendment's effect is to give a right of appeal on the facts where a single child support appeal tribunal (CSAT) chairman takes the place of the CSA officer. The amendment would build in a necessary safeguard and would give a right of appeal on the facts when a single child support appeal tribunal chairman takes the place of the child support agency officer. The purpose of the amendment is to provide the assurance that a right of appeal will be available.

Although we understand the Government's wish for flexibility and speed in the appeals process, we are concerned that natural justice may be sacrificed to achieve administrative convenience. The entire outcome of a departure application should not depend on the discretion of one individual. The exercise of discretion by different people can result in different decisions. A tribunal of three is less likely to give inconsistent and maverick decisions. Although one-person tribunals would cost less, that should not be the overriding factor in setting up the departure procedure. Adequate resources need to be made available to the Independent Tribunal Service and all members provided with detailed training, including a grounding in family law.

In principle, we do not oppose the introduction of one-person tribunals, although it is a significant change from other tribunals run by the independent tribunal service. It would be helpful if the Minister could give examples of the use of one-person tribunals in other fields. We ask that the Government give an assurance that the use of one-person tribunals will be the exception rather than the rule.

The amendment proposes a safeguard. Although there is no legal distinction between the decision being considered by a CSAT on referral or on appeal and they are both looked at de novo, there is a practical distinction. When an application is referred to a CSAT, it is considered only once, not twice, on the facts. Therefore, in effect, there is no right of appeal from the first decision on the facts.

We do not feel that it is sufficient for only one person—even though that person is legally qualified—to consider the case from beginning to end. The amendment would

19 Jun 1995 : Column 52

produce a system whereby, if it were felt necessary by the CSA staff, a legally qualified chairperson could take the place of the CSA departure officer, but that decision would not remove the applicant's right of appeal.

I believe that in the Standing Committee in the other place the Government made the point that there is no need for a second opinion and that an appeal on a point of law is sufficient. The Government argue that providing an appeal on the facts would prolong the procedure. Up to five people can consider a child support officer's decision: the original CSO, another CSO on review and three members of a tribunal. In the usual route for departure, four people will consider the case: the CSA departure officer and then the three tribunal members. However, in the case of a departure decision referred to the ITS, only one person could end up considering the case. The amendment would prevent that happening. It is even more important in the case of a discretionary decision that at least two people consider the facts.

The Government argue that there is no need for a right of appeal from the first decision taken on departure, in which case I ask the Minister why the Government propose a right of appeal on the facts against a CSA departure officer. Indeed, the cases which are referred to the ITS for an initial decision will, by definition, be the more complex cases and therefore it is even more important that a second opinion be allowed. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, explained, the Secretary of State, rather than himself determining an application for a departure, may instead refer it directly to a child support appeal tribunal. The tribunal may, on occasion, consist of a chairman sitting alone rather than the normal panel of three. I hope that my use of the words "may" and "normal" indicates that we expect that the panel of three will be normal but that there will be occasions on which the chairman might sit alone. The purpose of the amendment is to allow applicants whose case has been handled in that way—in other words going direct to the tribunal—a further right of appeal to a three-person tribunal if the first tribunal consisted of only the chairman.

I am sure that the Committee will be aware that the chairmen of child support appeal tribunals are both independent, being appointed by the Lord Chancellor, and legally qualified. They have considerable experience in child support and can be relied upon to come to fair and considered judgments. I should add that tribunal hearings are informal where all parties are assisted and, indeed, encouraged to put their case to ensure that they are being treated correctly according to the law. I therefore consider it unnecessary to build in a further step, prolonging the process by providing for another right of appeal. That would leave the absent parent in doubt as to his liability and the parent with care unsure of her income. An additional appeal stage would add to the cost of administering the scheme, in my view quite unnecessarily.

As the noble Lord said, the amendment is clearly directed at only those cases which are dealt with by a tribunal consisting of a chairman alone. I do not believe that the noble Lord is making an implication that the tribunal chairman on his own cannot be trusted to come to a fair decision and that a second opinion is needed.

19 Jun 1995 : Column 53

However, I have full confidence in the ability of tribunal chairmen, given that they are independent of the department or agency, are appointed by the Lord Chancellor and are legally trained and legally qualified. I believe that they can exercise their judgment in an impartial and unbiased way and I do not believe that such a decision requires further qualification.

The Committee will be aware that the system already provides a further route to challenge the decision of an appeal tribunal. There is a right of appeal on a point of law to the child support commissioners. Should a decision be grossly unreasonable or breach natural justice, it may be challenged through the courts by way of judicial review.

In my view, the system already has sufficient safeguards and to provide for a further appeal stage such as the amendment proposes is quite unnecessary. I hope that, having heard my explanation of how we envisage that the system will work and my assurance that the people who operate it are well qualified legally—they are independent and appointed by the Lord Chancellor—the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Carter: I am grateful to the Minister. He uses words with care; he said that this "may" happen on occasion. One would hope to find a device for ensuring that that would be the case and that it did not become a habit. The Minister's example was helpful. As my noble friend Lord Gladwin pointed out, a one-person tribunal is a contradiction in terms of language. However, I shall read the Minister's explanation, I hope we shall not have to return to the matter on Report. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Preliminary consideration]:

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page