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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I shall have to study this matter. However, standing here and thinking about it, it appears to me that, even if it is one computer talking to another computer, a review of housing benefit is taking place. It may not require a form to be sent out and sent back, but nonetheless it is a review within the 60-week period to which I referred. If it is the wish of the noble Baroness that I look at that aspect, I see the point that she makes. If it is being done automatically by the local authorities and sending out a form has no consequence, I shall certainly have a look at that in particular. But as far as concerns the generality certainly in the private sector, I must stand where I stood earlier.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I believe that we have made a little progress. With the leave of the Committee, I should like to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 255CBC to 255CBE not moved.]

Clause 106 agreed to.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 255CBF:

After Clause 106, insert the following new clause
(". In section 63 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (adjudication of housing and council tax benefit) in subsection (3) for "reviews" substitute "appeals to social security appeal tribunals".").

The noble Earl said: This amendment provides for housing benefit appeals to social security tribunals rather than minor scale reviews. With reference to the first of the housing benefit amendments we heard how contentious some of the issues arising out of housing benefit could be and how vital they could be to some of the people

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involved in them. In those circumstances, it seems that a full-scale appeal procedure may be rather useful. I hope that the Minister will consider it. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: This amendment would transfer the responsibility for carrying out housing benefit reviews from an internal review by the local authority, with a right to a further review before a housing benefit review board, to an appeal to a social security appeal tribunal, though with no provision for any further appeal. The current housing benefit appeal system has two tiers: the first is an internal review by the local authority that made the original decision on housing benefit entitlement. The second is a statutorily independent review board which comprises local authority councillors.

In 1988 the Government commissioned a report by the Social Policy Research Unit based at York University to look at ways in which the review system could be improved. It published its report in 1991. One of its major criticisms was that review boards lacked true independence because of the way in which they were constituted, but it also found very little evidence that boards were being influenced by financial or political considerations. Since publication of the report much has been done to improve the review system. My officials have issued good practice guides on each of the two stages of the review system for use by local authorities and review boards. Regulations were also tightened up to ensure that authorities dealt with a request for a review within 14 days of its receipt or as soon as practically possible thereafter. We have good reason to believe that this has led to an improvement in standards. Appeals dealt with by this means are brought to fruition a good deal quicker than appeals before social security tribunals.

I am advised that councillors treat this responsibility very seriously. I have no reason to believe otherwise; indeed, the noble Earl made no suggestion to the contrary. If the present system works reasonably efficiently and effectively and the councillors who form these appeal committees take their work seriously and there is no evidence of any extraneous considerations creeping into their deliberations--and it is, dare I say, a relatively cheap system to run compared with the social security appeal tribunal system--perhaps we should stay with the system that we have. Currently, we are looking at the whole question of decision-making and appeals in the benefits system. In any case we will be looking at the question of housing benefit and all other benefits. I am not persuaded that we should move in the direction suggested by the noble Earl. I do not believe that the authorities would themselves welcome such a major structural change to housing benefit when there are so many other changes taking place.

Having started off the afternoon with such good spirits, I shall not begin to tease people about not being prepared to trust councillors. There appears to be evidence, and I am so advised, that councillors take this seriously, and the training courses that are run are attended in a serious way by those councillors who fulfil the obligation. In the absence of solid proof that the system is not working

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properly, I am inclined to suggest to your Lordships that we stay with the system that we already have. I ask the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment.

Earl Russell: I thank the Minister for a thoughtful and full reply. I did not suggest any impropriety in the way that the present system was run. I have no special reason to distrust councillors, but I believe that it is proper to distrust all power and to distrust it rather more if one happens to hold it oneself than one would under any other circumstances. I make no apology for a degree of mistrust because I believe that it is only proper. I think that anyone whom one respects will expect it. There is some force in the point that justice should not only be done but should be seen to be done, and the show of independence is worth while in terms of acceptance of decision.

But when the Minister mentioned the cost of the system he also set me thinking about what the effect of the changed programme will be over the next three years: that is, the Committee may remember, a programme for a 25 per cent. cut in the DSS running costs. Whether when that comes in everything will be working quite as well as in some places it is at present is quite another question. So we should bear that in mind as we watch the way the evidence develops over the next year. But I am certainly not going to make an issue of it tonight, so I shall accept the Minister's suggestion that I withdraw my amendment if the House will give me leave to do so.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 107 agreed to.

Schedule 10 [Administration of housing benefit, 8c]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 255CC:

Page 160, line 35, at end insert--
("( ) For subsection (5) (agreements with other authorities for carrying out of functions) substitute--
"(5) Authorities may--
(a) agree that one shall discharge functions relating to housing benefit on another's behalf, or
(b) discharge any such functions jointly or arrange for their discharge by a joint committee.
(5A) Nothing in this section shall be read as excluding the general provisions of the Local Government Act 1972 or the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 from applying in relation to the housing benefit functions of a local authority.".").

The noble Lord said: With this I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 255CD and 255CE. These amendments to Schedule 10 to the Bill will make further changes to the powers in the Social Security Administration Act 1992 under which local authorities administer housing benefit and council tax benefit and the Secretary of State for Social Security pays subsidies to them in respect of their expenditure on those benefits. The proposed amendments would make good a limitation on certain of the powers in Part VII of the 1992 Act under which the Secretary of State makes his subsidy payments. They would also remove a doubt which has arisen about the powers in Part VII for local authorities to discharge another's function and how these interact with general local government legislation in England and Wales and in Scotland for such joint workings.

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Section 134 of the 1992 Act (as regards housing benefit) and Section 139, which is its equivalent for council tax benefit, empower local authorities to arrange to discharge responsibilities relating to benefits on one another's behalf. Lawyers have questioned whether these specific provisions unintentionally ousted the general provisions for such working contained in the relevant local government legislation. We had all assumed that the two sets of provisions would work together.

Amendments Nos. 2555CC and 255CD will remove any element of doubt that in making such arrangements relating to benefits the authorities concerned are still empowered or bound by the relevant general provisions for joint working. They will also allow those housing authorities that are not local authorities to discharge their functions with others by a joint committee if they so wish.

The problem addressed by Amendment No. 255CE concerns payments by the Secretary of State for Social Security in respect of subsidies for administration or benefit expenditure arising from such joint action. Those powers require him to make such payments to "each authority"; that is, he must in all circumstances make a separate payment to each authority. In other words, the authorities can act together but the Secretary of State must pay his subsidies to each of them separately. That is inefficient, it is out of line with what Parliament intended for the operation of the authorities' functions in those areas and it gives rise to a multiplicity of payments, authorisations, audit trails and the like.

The problem has been highlighted for us by a joint proposal to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State from the London boroughs wishing to work together in a pilot scheme for London organised fraud teams to tackle organised landlord fraud in housing benefit. My right honourable friend has agreed to the proposals from the Association of London Government. He has made funding of up to £1 million available to get the pilot scheme going. The boroughs wish to develop the scheme with one of their number as the lead authority. That authority would take responsibility for the payment from my right honourable friend and account for it. But as matters stand he cannot meet that particular, sensible aspect of the boroughs' proposals.

There are three lessons in that example, assuming that the pilot is successful and there is a desire to continue the scheme. First, it concerns a matter raised by agreement by the local authorities concerned. Secondly,it is aimed at dealing actively with a major and unacceptable threat to the system. Thirdly, my right honourable friend is unable to respond to it in an efficient and accountable way, the way he would wish to do.

Amendment No. 255CE would open the way for my right honourable friend to match his payment arrangements with the voluntary operational arrangements Parliament has empowered the authorities to enter into.

I recommend these amendments to the Committee. They are, as I said, wholly within the spirit of the 1992 Act and very much in response to what I believe everyone will welcome as a sensible initiative between my right honourable friend and the London boroughs. I beg to move.

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On Question, amendment agreed to.

6.15 p.m.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 255CCA:

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