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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not sure whether we can take wagers in the Chamber. The noble Earl says that we cannot. Given his long knowledge of these procedural matters, indeed we cannot. I say to the noble Earl that we would be extremely disappointed if we did not find ways to improve the accuracy of the information. One of the matters that we have discovered in looking at the process is that the point at which the raw information is checked is way down the system. Very often that is one of the factors that leads to

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inaccuracy. We hope that if checking takes place much closer to the beginning of the process not only will it speed up the process but it will also lead to greater accuracy. I do not want to go too far into the detail of the Change Programme. However, I would be deeply disappointed if the noble Earl's pessimism turned out to be justified.

As to hardship, the recovery of overpayment by the deduction of benefit is, we believe, the most cost effective way of recouping the loss. To ensure that no claimant suffers hardship, recovery from weekly amounts of benefit is subject to limits set out in the legislation. Where a claimant puts forward a good reason for a lower rate of recovery or argues that recovery should not take place, that case is looked at sympathetically. I hope that out in the field we look at individual cases of hardship sympathetically and at slower ways to recover overpayment or, in some cases, waive it.

Earl Russell: Whatever we can do about wagers, I am certain that in this Chamber I cannot tell the story of the Glasgow physiology student. Perhaps I can look forward to telling the Minister that story outside the Chamber.

Baroness Turner of Camden: I thank the Minister for his explanation. I remind him that we are referring here to the recovery of overpayments which are not the fault of the recipient but which arise because of incompetence or oversight on the part of the Benefits Agency or the authority responsible for making the payment. It must come as bit of a shock to many people suddenly to find that they are asked to make good an overpayment when they themselves have not been responsible for providing inaccurate information and the overpayment has arisen because someone else made a mistake in the system.

Although I do not intend to divide the Committee on the amendment, I feel strongly about it. I should like to think about what the Minister said. I am grateful to him for his comments about training. Obviously, it is important that staff should be properly trained and that performance monitoring should take place. I am also glad to learn that the head of the Benefits Agency intends to ensure that proper monitoring is carried out. However, that still does not tackle the situation I seek to deal with by way of the amendment; that is to say, to ensure that people are not suddenly faced, through no fault of their own, with a demand for repayment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment on the basis that I am likely to come back with a rather similar amendment at Report Stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Turner of Camden moved Amendment No. 55:

After Clause 5, insert the following new clause--

Information relating to determination of claim: time limits

(" . In section 5(1) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (regulations about claims for and payment of benefit) at end of paragraph (h) insert "and for requiring a request for information or evidence by the determining authority to be made in such a

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manner and within such a period as may be prescribed, not being more than seven days from the date on which the new claim is received at the appropriate DSS office or the designated office, whichever is the earlier, and where it appears to the determining authority that further information or evidence is required for requiring that request to be not more than ten days from the date on which the claim is received;".").

The noble Baroness said: The purpose of the amendment is to provide for regulations which will ensure that when applications are made for housing benefit, requests for information and evidence are made within seven days of the receipt of the claim. Delays in the determination of claims for housing benefit are a significant factor in causing arrears of rent, even homelessness, despite regulations which require local authorities to make payments within 14 days of receiving full information on the claim. One cause of delay is the current lack of any time limit on the period for requesting additional information. The amendment seeks to tackle that by introducing time limits for requests for additional information and evidence by the determining authority.

DSS proposals to pay housing benefit in arrears make it even more essential that the benefit is paid speedily. During the Housing Bill there was an argument for changing benefit regulations to ensure that local authorities made requests for information or evidence within specified periods in order to prevent delays but without much success. At that stage the Minister said:

    "I am not complacent. I recognise the strength of feeling behind this amendment. I propose to monitor the position".
I am advised by NACAB, to whom I am indebted for briefing, that the problem persists. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Having listened to the noble Baroness, I now appreciate that her amendment is directed at the Secretary of State who may be being dilatory in some cases in collecting the necessary evidence. Perhaps I may explain how the claim process works at present and why I do not believe the amendment would help either the organisation or the claimant. The onus for making the claim for benefit lies with the individual who wishes to claim. That claim is submitted to the Secretary of State whose task it is to check whether it contains sufficient information to enable the adjudication officer to make a determination. If it does he submits it straightaway to the adjudication officer under Section 20 of the Administration Act. Section 21 requires the adjudication officer, so far as practicable, to dispose of the claim within 14 days. However, it may be that before he can dispose of it the adjudication officer requires the Secretary of State to request further evidence. In such cases the 14 days may well be impracticable. If the Secretary of State requires more information before submitting it to the adjudication officer, Regulation 7(1) of the claims and payments regulations allows the claimant one month to produce the required information or such longer period as the Secretary of State may consider reasonable.

The amendment would introduce into this procedure deadlines for the request of information. The Secretary of State would have seven days to request information following the receipt of a claim and a further three days would be allowed where further information was

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requested. I can understand the desire to ensure efficient administration, but I believe that such an amendment would be counter-productive and would not achieve what the noble Baroness desires. I suspect that it would not be beneficial to the claimant. If the request for information was not made within the prescribed seven or 10-day period the Secretary of State would pass the claim as it stood to the adjudication officer. The adjudication officer would then be obliged to decide the claim on the evidence before him. The onus is on the claimant to show that he is entitled to benefit and most requests for further information are made because it appears that the evidence the claimant has provided is not sufficient to do this. So the almost inevitable result is that the claimant, under the noble Baroness's suggested rule, would be disallowed benefit.

I know that that is not what the noble Baroness has in mind when she proposes the amendment, but I believe that that would be its effect. In my view claimants are well served by the current provisions, which provide the flexibility needed to ensure that we can ask questions to make sure that the adjudication officer has all the evidence before he makes the decision. If he is forced to make that evidence on inadequate information because of time limits, the chances are that the information will be inadequate in such a way that the claimant will not receive the benefit, or perhaps as much benefit, as he is entitled to receive. I know that that is in no way the noble Baroness's intention.

With that explanation of how the system works at present--I am sure the noble Baroness knows it--and as regards the problem that will arise from her amendment, I hope that she will feel able to withdraw it.

Baroness Turner of Camden: I thank the Minister for that response. He is quite right. It is not the intention in moving the amendment to make it more difficult for the claimant to have benefit; quite the contrary. The intention is to ensure that the claim is processed as quickly as possible and that the claimant is not subject to unnecessary delays in seeking his benefit.

As I said in regard to the previous amendment, I shall read in Hansard what the Minister said to see whether it might be a good idea to come back with a different form of wording designed to achieve the objective of the amendment. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton moved Amendment No. 56:

After Clause 5, insert the following new clause--

Report on benefit fraud by one person claiming on behalf of another

(". The Secretary of State shall report to Parliament on the administration of social security in relation to the payment of benefit to another person on behalf of a person entitled to such benefit with particular reference to safeguarding such a person from fraud.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving the new clause, my intention is to highlight a crucial but so far ignored element in relation to fraud: the appointment of

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appointees and agents. I am somewhat surprised that a Bill which deals with fraud makes no reference to reviewing the system of appointeeships or agencies. There has been considerable evidence to suggest that such fraud as takes place is sufficient to warrant the Government conducting a substantial review of the system, in particular in respect of appointeeships.

The current arrangements which allow for a person to appoint someone else to manage his benefit entitlement on his behalf if he is mentally incapacitated, or to collect his benefit if he is unable to do so himself, can lead to considerable potential for undetected fraud and abuse. This possibility is exacerbated in a number of ways: by there being little statutory backing for the system for appointing appointees or agents; by there being no formal mechanism once an appointee is appointed; and because the Benefits Agency provides only limited public information on the system and conducts limited monitoring of appointees or agents.

At this stage I should declare an interest as I act as an agent. I have to say that I was disturbed at the time of my becoming an agent that no check was made as to my credentials. I have, however, an agency card stating that I am authorised to collect money on behalf of the named person. The Minister may tell us that there has to be a witness to such an appointment; and that is right. But there is no stipulation as to who that person should be. It does not have to be an accredited person such as a doctor or social worker. It can be someone closely connected to the person who is to act as agent. That is because officially the nomination of an agent is an informal arrangement between claimant and agent. It is assumed that the claimant is in a position to make judgments about who should act on his behalf. One consequence is that there is no monitoring of these arrangements, but it is all too easy for vulnerable people to be misled.

Another concern is that people acting as agents are under no obligation to inform the Benefits Agency when or if the claimant is no longer capable of giving the agent the authority to draw benefit. The agent could continue to collect benefits for someone when an appointee might be more appropriate. This opens the agent to the temptation to retain access to funds without there being the proper authority to do so. Relying on the integrity of agents, no matter how many are acting properly, is obviously a weakness in the system.

As it currently operates, the appointeeship system is even more open to abuse. Although this arrangement is intended for people who are unable to act for themselves, there is no requirement for medical confirmation that an appointee is required. Currently Benefits Agency staff without any special training or experience can make that decision alone. Similarly, there is a lack of public information about how the system operates and, as internal Benefits Agency staff guidance is inadequate, many procedures are not followed. For example, against current guidance some appointees have been appointed without a face-to-face interview to determine their suitability.

Once appointed, again there is no adequate monitoring. Staff guidance only suggests spasmodic case checks on appointees when a person is in

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residential care. Cases have arisen where the appointee has left his job at the home and consequently an unauthorised person has been collecting benefit entitlement, sometimes for years. Despite the Law Commission in 1993 concluding that appointeeships should be reviewed every six or 12 months, no action has been taken by the Government.

Another example is the number of care home owners who are often acting as appointees despite the fact that the Benefits Agency guidance states that they should be used only as a last resort. In order to protect the claimant, the very least that should happen is that the home concerned should be required to submit an annual account of the benefit claimed and how it has been spent. That would ensure that the benefit entitlement collected is spent on the person for whom the appointee acts.

It is difficult to estimate how widespread is fraud and abuse in this area of benefit payments. That is mainly because of the lack of information, lack of monitoring and the laxity of the current rules which provide adequate scope for fraud and abuse to occur.

In reply to a Question in another place, the Minister indicated that the department keeps these matters under ongoing review, and that in particular current arrangements for appointees and agents in the context of transition to payment by benefit cards is being examined. But that is not sufficient. There needs to be a tightening up of the whole process. The Secretary of State having to report to Parliament would highlight the shortcomings in the current system and would, one hopes, result in encouraging the DSS to consult on bringing forward adequate regulations. I beg to move.

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