Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Turner of Camden: I thank the Minister for that response, but I am not entirely convinced that it is not a good idea to have such provisions stated on the face of the Bill. I know from my own experience that one can notify the Benefits Agency of a change of circumstance but that it may be some time before one is informed by the agency that that notification has gone through. I remember notifying the agency of the death of my husband. Some time went by and eventually I received a letter stating, "We are very sorry that your husband has died, but by the way you owe us £200 because there has been an overpayment". That is not a very good way of dealing with overpayments. That is an example from my own experience, but we must remember that those who receive council tax benefit or housing benefit are already living close to the edge, as the noble Earl said, and they really need some time limit to be put on the period within which the authorities should deal with a change of notification.

I shall read in Hansard what the Minister has said to see whether it might be a good idea to come back on Report with a slightly reworded amendment to deal with the exceptional circumstance. However, I believe that we must spell out somewhere in primary legislation the

13 Mar 1997 : Column 472

fact that 14 days is the period which would normally be expected to apply. In the circumstances, however, I beg leave--

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I simply want to suggest that the noble Baroness might like to look at Section 21 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, which provides that:

    "An adjudication officer to whom a claim or question is submitted under section 20 ... shall take it into consideration and, so far as practicable, dispose of it, in accordance with this section, and with the procedure regulations under section 59 below, within 14 days of its submission to him".
Perhaps the noble Baroness would care to consider that when she is reviewing what I have said.

Baroness Turner of Camden: In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Turner of Camden moved Amendment No. 54:

After Clause 5, insert the following new clause--

Overpayments: recovery of payments following change in circumstances

(". In section 71 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (overpayment) at end of subsection (1) insert "and but for any payments and sums which have arisen as a result of a failure to make an award within fourteen days following notification of a change of circumstances.".").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment seeks to deal with the situation when an overpayment has resulted from an error or from failure to process the claim. It proposes that changes in circumstances should be processed within 14 days. We are attempting to ensure that the recovery of overpayments following a change of circumstances should not be due to be repaid when that overpayment has arisen because there has been poor administration.

I am indebted to NACAB for some information about what happens in certain cases. It has told me that, with regard to attendance allowance, 26 per cent. of all decisions taken by adjudication officers were incorrect--that is, more than one in four--compared with 15 per cent. in 1994-95 and that 18 per cent. included either an incorrect payment or a case where the accuracy of the payment was in doubt. It has evidence relating to the disability working allowance also, showing that 40 per cent.--two in five--of all decisions taken were incorrect, compared with 31 per cent. in 1994-95. On family credit, NACAB states that 26 per cent. of decisions were incorrect, of which 14 per cent. included incorrect payments or cases where the accuracy of the payment was in doubt. On income support, 41 per cent. of decisions were incorrect, compared with 38 per cent. in 1994-95. Indeed, nine out of 10 decisions were wrong concerning overpayments, 46 per cent. of which included incorrect payments or cases where the accuracy of the payment was in doubt. On the Social Fund, NACAB stated that 74 per cent. of decisions were incorrect.

Coming from an organisation with a lot of experience of advising claimants, that is a record which shows that many decisions are incorrect. If people are

13 Mar 1997 : Column 473

disadvantaged because of those incorrect decisions, it seems wrong that they should be expected to meet the costs of those wrong decisions--yet that is what it amounts to. I repeat what I said in relation to the previous amendment: in dealing with people on benefit, we are dealing with people who live on tight budgets. Therefore, if mistakes are made by the authorities responsible for the administration of benefit, it seems to me that the claimants should not have to bear the weight of those wrong decisions. I beg to move.

Earl Russell: I shall not make a speech; I say only that the noble Baroness has made out a very strong case and I hope that it is taken seriously.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, the purpose of this amendment is to restrict the end date for the calculation of recoverable overpayments to 14 days following the date on which a claimant reports a change of circumstances. This does not fit well with the subject matter of Section 71(1) which concerns recovery of overpayments where a person has misrepresented or failed to disclose a material fact.

In any event, I can see no reason why the period of recoverable overpayments should be restricted in this way. As I explained on the previous amendment, every effort is made to action new information within 14 days. However, this is not always possible--particularly in complex cases or where the adjudication officer feels that additional information is required before the rate of benefit in payment can be reviewed. The practice of recovering the full overpayment was included in the 1948 National Assistance Act and has been reconfirmed by successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, in subsequent Acts--none of which restricts the period of the recoverable overpayment.

When people claim benefits they receive public money which Parliament has determined should be made available to those in genuine need. There is an obligation on those claiming benefit to ensure that they have reported everything that they should regarding their claim to benefit at the outset. Even where we are dealing with innocent misrepresentation where the claimant knew the facts but failed to report them, being unaware of the need to do so--and these cases are rare--the claimant has benefited from public money to which he or she was not entitled. In these circumstances it would be a dereliction of our duty if we did not seek to recover the overpayment in full.

Even when an adjudication officer decides that an overpayment is recoverable there is a right of appeal against the decision, and the Secretary of State can, and does, exercise his discretion where serious hardship would be caused to waive in whole or in part the recovery of the overpayment. In addition, where income support or jobseeker's allowance is in payment, the weekly rate at which the overpayment can be recovered is limited by regulations.

As far as improvements in the accuracy of payments of income support are concerned, the chief executive of the Benefits Agency has given assurances to the Public

13 Mar 1997 : Column 474

Accounts Committee of his commitment to accuracy improvement. He has set in motion both short-term measures--for example, to increase the accountability of managers and to improve the training given to staff--and longer-term measures to improve the processes and systems for awarding and paying benefit. That is one of the motivations behind the Change Programme. We want to see whether we can improve the system and one of our objectives is to improve the accuracy figures. I fully accept that that is important.

The calculation of overpayment is a complex area. The chief adjudication officer and the Benefits Agency are currently working together to improve standards by means of new information technology support, a programme of seminars, the production of new guidance and desk aids, and changes in class monitoring in order to increase the profile of adjudication within districts. I hope that all those factors will help to reduce the number of cases of inaccuracy and therefore the number of cases in which overpayment comes into play.

I am sure that the noble Baroness knows how we exercise our powers with relation to overpayment--and how we exercise discretion with regard to certain categories of people and the recovery of overpayment--and I hope that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

6.30 p.m.

Earl Russell: The Minister disappoints me. He deals with a case that has not been made. He answers a case against the recovery of overpayment. No one has made any such case. The case is simply that a degree of mercy be shown to people who have received a considerable amount of overpayment through no fault of their own. It is the recovery of those sums at speed, all in one go or over a very short period, which causes hardship. I can only hope that the Minister's tax inspector does not share his principles.

The Minister was also perhaps a little unwise to mention the Change Programme. I understand the case made by the Benefits Agency about the rate of error. I have always been inclined to the merciful approach because I know that to err is human and that the pressure to which it is subject is very severe. But I am surprised to hear the Change Programme invoked as a reason for the likely decline in the rate of error. One understands that wagers are not made in the Chamber. Were we to be outside the Chamber I might well have offered the Minister the wager that after three years of the Change Programme the rate of error would not be less than it is today. I would be rather surprised if the Minister took such a wager.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page