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Earl Russell: Agency is something which always needs supervision. Some of us have come across a fairly similar problem of agency in the administration of proxy votes. I do not make any party point. All parties have been accused of abusing the system. All parties need monitoring. Original sin does not have any party. But that is beside the present point. I hope that it may be discussed between our party headquarters.
We are dealing with a group of people who are often unable to look after themselves. For example, if someone suffers from Alzheimer's, he is not in a particularly good state to check whether the agent is exercising his power properly. There is some need for external supervision. What form that external supervision should take is a very much more difficult problem. One thinks perhaps of the powers of public trustees because the person concerned is in effect exercising a trusteeship and perhaps that is the appropriate form of supervision.
The Answer to a Written Question to which the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, referred was in answer to my honourable friend Miss Lynne in another place. I accept that the department keeps everything under review, but perhaps the Minister can tell us what kind of review is being conducted. What methodology is being used? What, if any, preliminary impressions has it gained?
However, I am not persuaded that the natural concerns that we all have are addressed by the proposed amendment. First, the vast majority of appointees are family or friends acting in a caring role and performing a valuable, but often unnoticed, task. I believe that it would be highly intrusive and provocative to conduct a survey which had a remit of checking that the appointee was not defrauding the person being cared for. I fear that a large number of existing appointees might respond to such a survey by requesting that the department appoint somebody else. The reality is that in many cases there would be no one else to be the appointee. That rather basic fact takes the edge off the point of conducting a survey.
I appreciate that in the past there have been problems in connection with some proprietors of residential homes. I can tell the noble Baroness that existing guidance to staff in Benefits Agency offices is that they should consider appointing a proprietor of a residential home to act for the claimant only where no other suitable person can be found. The reason for that guidance is not necessarily that proprietors are viewed by the department as potential fraudsters; it is simply that the task of being an appointee goes wider than just cashing the claimant's benefit, taking out the fees to the home and giving the claimant the remainder. There is an onus to report changes in circumstances which may affect entitlement to benefit, and proprietors of homes may not be in a position to fulfil such a role.
The noble Baroness outlined the procedure which currently exists before an appointee arrangement is approved. Perhaps I may go over that, too. The claimant is visited to ascertain whether he is capable of managing his affairs. The prospective appointee is also visited, either with the claimant or separately, to ensure that he understands and is prepared to take on the role of appointee. In addition the Secretary of State has discretion to terminate an existing appointment. He would certainly do that without delay if there were, for instance, any suggestion of the claimant being defrauded.
I can also tell the noble Baroness that the Benefits Agency looked at the whole area of appointee arrangements last year. It found that the procedures were basically sound, although some concerns were raised that procedures had not been properly followed. The noble Baroness suggested that, too. The conclusion of the agency was not so much that the procedures needed changing, but that it was necessary to emphasise the fact that the procedures should be followed.
The broader point raised by the noble Earl and alluded to by the noble Baroness related to keeping the matter under review. We are at a particular transition period in the way in which we pay benefits. The whole area of agent collection is being considered as part of the studies we need to undertake leading up to the benefit payment card. Research has shown us that we need to continue with an agent system for the collection of benefits because, as we all agree, there are customers who cannot collect themselves and who need appointees or agents. As my honourable friend said in another place, we are making the system more secure within the changes associated with the card. We must address methods of verification of the agent which are different from the current methods because benefit books are quite different from the systems which will be used for benefit payment cards. That is one of the problems we are having to investigate in addressing the introduction of benefit payment cards.
I hope that those words help to reassure the noble Baroness that we are looking at these matters with regard to the transition from the current system to the benefit payment card system. I should be interested to hear of any particular case she has in mind where the procedures fail to be carried out. Even if the appointee was the right and proper person to be appointed, the procedures ought still to have been carried out in order to ascertain that that was the case. We are all agreed that vulnerable claimants must be protected. I spend some time trying to tease out issues relating to the introduction of benefit payments cards. However, I believe that the amendment would take us too far down a different road and would not help to achieve our goal. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to discuss the matter and to hear the points put to me by the noble Baroness.
Lord Carter: Before my noble friend decides what to do with the amendment, perhaps I may make a suggestion. The Minister mentioned a review of the appointment of appointees and referred to the problems which arise when no one is available. We have an Official Solicitor and an Official Trustee. Will the Government consider an Official Appointee? Obviously, that would be a right and proper person and such an office would help to solve some of the problems described by the Minister.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I have a suspicion that that would be a very bureaucratic system to devise as regards the bulk of the cases where the appointee is likely to be a close relative or friend of the person concerned. In the circumstances, it would be wrong to
Lord Carter: I make the suggestion only in respect of those cases where there is a problem in finding someone to undertake the task. I believe that the Official Trustee delegates the task to a retired person. A retired insurance broker can act as an official trustee in certain cases. One could have a register of such people to be drawn upon when there was a problem finding the right person.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: When there is a real problem in finding an appointee the situation is different from that we have been discussing. It is not a matter of an appointee being available, but of an appointee being a right and proper person.
I shall look at that small point--small in number--and I shall try to ensure that after the Committee stage the Benefits Agency is aware of the concerns that procedures are not being properly followed.
Earl Russell: I am grateful to the Minister who has tried very hard to be constructive. Of course it is possible that this is not the best answer, but perhaps we ought to think about what is. When the Minister talked about the benefit payment card he was getting warmer. We must make some distinctions. It is not enough to control the choice of appointee. No one is immune to temptation, even close relatives. One need only think, "Oh, my prophetic soul, my uncle." One cannot deal with the problem simply by controlling the choice of the appointee; one must have some monitoring of the conduct of the appointee in office.
Here one needs to make another distinction between people who are unable to collect their benefit because of physical incapacity and people who are unable to do so because of mental incapacity. If you are unable to collect your benefit because of mental incapacity, you simply cannot monitor the person who is collecting it for you. That is what made me wonder about automatic credit transfer: I have heard the Minister sing its praises on other occasions.
Where there is a clear mental incapacity, if benefit were paid by automatic credit transfer it could be tapped only by somebody who had authorised access to the claimant's bank account, and access to bank accounts and use of them is carefully monitored independently. Is that a road which we might possibly go down?
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