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Lord Archer of Sandwell: I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. For the record, does she appreciate that the presidents of the ITS publish an annual report each year?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Yes. I believe that that is why the Liberal Democrat Front Bench was not persuaded that this was the earth-moving amendment that Members of the Committee might otherwise have believed it to be.

I have outlined the ways in which we intend to ensure thorough monitoring and reporting. We see reports from the presidents of appeal tribunals as a valuable contribution to ensuring that high standards are met. The amendment specifies, on the face of the Bill, in response to a request from the official Opposition, that the president should report on the standards of agency decisions in cases going to tribunals and that the report should be published. That has always been our intention; it continues present practice; and the amendment puts the matter beyond any possible doubt.

We are delighted to respond to Amendment No. 1 and its related amendments proposed by my noble friends Lord Evans and Lady Turner, which have been warmly supported in the Chamber. I hope that, with the reassurances and explanations on other amendments, together with Amendment No. 39 which meets concerns raised at Second Reading by the noble Baroness on the Opposition Front Bench, noble Lords will be happy not to pursue their amendments.

Lord Higgins: I was brought up in the House of Commons where, in matters of procedure, the late Iain Macleod made the memorable remark, when commenting on a government concession to the opposition, that one should never shoot Santa Claus.

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Apart from it being unseasonable in any case I certainly would not wish to do that. What one should do, however, is look very carefully at the wording on the wrapping paper. We shall study what the Minister said. Certainly, it seems a very significant move which we would welcome. We shall wish, in particular, to consider between now and Report stage the point she made about consultation with outside bodies. As she said, our amendment was more specific.

Perhaps I may make a final point, given the forthcoming attitude of the noble Baroness. Last week we had a Statement on the Government's proposals for reform of the welfare system and in particular a number of success measures. There was some dispute between the noble Baroness and myself as to the extent to which those could be quantified in particular cases. Will she consider adding to the proposals in the Green Paper the suggestion of quantifying as a success measure the kind of statistic referred to by the noble Baroness who supported this amendment and to which I myself referred? It might be a good idea to adopt the process which the Government have suggested in terms of success measures but to have a quantitative measure against which we could judge the reports which the Minister has kindly said she intends shall be produced by the Secretary of State and the heads of agencies.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: That is a very interesting point. It will not have escaped the noble Lord that, as the Green Paper has already been published, I can hardly add to it at this late stage. I shall consider whether it might be appropriate for the annual reports to have benchmark targets to be aimed at. However, I know from some areas of my experience--for example, in disability benefits--that because of the length of time between the first decision and an appeal, during which time someone may have become physically much worse, a decision on appeal may overturn the decision made at the first tier of decision-making and yet both decisions may be right. The fact that the appeal went against the department in favour of the complainant should not mean that there is an easy read-across to suggest that there was therefore a faulty decision at the point of the adjudication officer's judgment. The issue is clearly more black and white where one is dealing with, say, income support or JSA where a decision may have been faulty. It is not always the case that, when an appeal decision is substituted for an AO's decision, the AO's decision was necessarily wrong. The decision may have been correct at the time and other considerations may come into play.

I shall reflect on the point. There is no intention by government to back away from setting ourselves challenging targets by which we seek to improve the quality of the original decision-making and to measure that improvement.

Lord Evans of Parkside: At the outset of what may be a long voyage to examine this important Social Security Bill, which will affect hundreds of thousands of families in this country in a variety of ways, I am pleased to find considerable support for the broad

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principle of the amendment tabled by my noble friend and myself. In my experience over many years in the other place I was taught never to look a gift horse in the mouth when the Minister was offering a concession. I therefore thank the Minister for her assurances and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 3:

After Clause 1, insert the following new clause--

Adjudication Standards Commissioner

(" .--(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint an Adjudication Standards Commissioner.
(2) The Adjudication Standards Commissioner shall keep under review the exercise by the Secretary of State of the functions transferred to him by paragraph (a) of section 1 above and in particular the accuracy of decisions made by him or on his behalf under sections 9, 10 and 11 below, and the time within which such decisions are made.
(3) The Adjudication Standards Commissioner shall report annually to the Secretary of State in the light of the review referred to in subsection (2) above and the Secretary of State shall lay a copy of his report before Parliament.
(4) The Adjudication Standards Commissioner shall issue guidance on the law relevant to decisions referred to in subsection (2) above.
(5) The guidance referred to in subsection (4) above shall be available to any person who requests it.
(6) The Adjudication Standards Commissioner shall ensure that officers acting on behalf of the Secretary of State in the discharge of his functions under section 1 above receive suitable training.").

The noble Lord said: This is the first of a series of amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Russell and others as well as myself. As everybody knows, the Bill is based on Conservative proposals being implemented by a Labour Government. Not surprisingly therefore it has the broad support of both the Government and the official Opposition Front Benches. However, if I may say so, it is none the better for that. As the presidents of the Independent Tribunal Services for Great Britain and Northern Ireland said in their joint comments on the Bill,

    "a Bill which enjoys such bi-partisan support paradoxically needs to be challenged more strenuously in order to test its effects".

I do not in any way belittle the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on behalf of the official Opposition; the great majority of them are well thought out and will be supported by us. Also, I welcome and support the amendments tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, and other noble Lords. However, the burden of challenging the details of this Bill rests mainly on these Benches and with a Bill as complicated and technical as this one, that burden is a heavy one.

Public criticism of this Bill mainly concentrated on Clauses 70--the abolition of the higher rate for lone parent child benefit--and 72 on the reduction in the period of backdating. In this Committee stage those clauses are a long way down the road. Today we start with Part I which creates major changes in the system

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of decisions and appeals. Cumulatively, it is fair to say that those changes are at least as important as those in Clauses 70 and 72.

The Government's stated aim is to produce a less complex, more accurate and cost-effective system for making and changing decisions. That is a proposition with which I agree--and one might say: who would not? But in fact many of the proposals seem to us to be unsatisfactory. Some are simply unlikely to achieve the Government's aims; some achieve one aim at undue cost to another; for example, cost-effectiveness may be achieved to the detriment of accuracy. That is illustrated by the proposals on appeal procedures. Some proposals may achieve the aims stated by the Government, but at the cost of other aims which are not included in the list but which everybody recognises as valid. That includes transparency and fairness. A claimant whose claim is refused is entitled to an explanation that he or she can understand and to feel that that claim has been treated and looked at fairly, either at first tier or on appeal.

We are concerned with the proposed removal of the independent oversight of the first-tier decision-making process. We want to ensure that the claimant is given a proper explanation and decision; that at all levels of decision-making all proper factors are taken into account by the decision-maker, whether or not those factors are raised by the claimant; and we want to see a proper complaints procedure.

We are concerned with many of the alterations to the tribunal procedure such as the shortening of the period for appeals, the ending of the requirement for three-person tribunals and the ending of the requirement that one member of the tribunal be legally qualified. We are concerned with enshrining in statute the current practice that an appellant will not be given an oral hearing before the tribunal without a specific request.

The Government propose in Clause 1 to abolish the statutory offices of the adjudication officer or the child support officer. That is an extremely important change. There are arguments with some force in its favour and we do not object to that proposal. We accept it as a proper decision that the Secretary of State, through the agencies which administer benefits or child support, should be directly responsible for first-tier decisions. But the Bill, in removing the statutory offices of adjudication officer or child support officer, abolishes the offices necessarily of chief adjudication officer or chief child support officer. The responsibilities of those officers are transferred to the Secretary of State. In practice, those responsibilities will fall on the chief executive of the agencies which administer benefits or child support.

That increases the importance of having an independent monitoring officer who is not under the control of the Secretary of State or the chief executive. There can be no doubt that adjudication standards are now unacceptably low. The chief adjudication officer's report for 1996-97 found that there were adjudication deficiencies in 45 per cent. of income support cases examined and 37 per cent. of family credit cases. In 40 per cent. of income support cases and 35 per cent. of family credit cases examined, the amount paid was

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incorrect or doubtfully correct. The chief child support officer reported deficiencies in 57 per cent. of child support cases examined.

It is possible that bringing first-tier decisions in-house will itself improve those standards. We hope so. It is essential to get first-tier decisions right as far as possible. Reviews and appeals cost money, take time and--an important factor--increase the stress on claimants. However, we believe it is wrong to transfer to the agencies both the responsibility for adjudication and for monitoring that adjudication.

The reports of the chief adjudication officer and the chief child support officer have done a great deal to reveal the weaknesses of the existing systems. They also reported on matters such as the effectiveness of the management arrangements for adjudication, on training and on access to advice for adjudication. We believe it is essential that there should be independent monitoring. There is an obvious risk in the agencies monitoring their own standards of adjudication. That was pointed out by the Council on Tribunals in its annual report for 1996-97.

Amendment No. 3 requires the Secretary of State to appoint an adjudication standards commissioner. That commissioner will hold a statutory office independent of the agencies. The adjudication standards commissioner will be concerned to see that decisions are accurate and timely; will be available, as the chief adjudication officer is now, to give guidance on the law and to oversee the training of adjudicators. To quote again from the comments of the presidents of the Independent Tribunal Service:

    "once the Chief Adjudication Officer ... ceases to exist, there will be no independent means of assessing consistency and reliability of decision-making. If such a system is not established, and it is left to the Chief Executives of the relevant agencies, we fear that it may not achieve the priority it deserves when competing for funds in a pressured business environment. The absence of such a system may actually threaten achievable efficiency at first-tier level".
That is a very powerful criticism and the amendment is intended to meet it.

We warmly welcome the undertakings and explanations given by the Government but their proposals still lack the essential element that the report and standards should be made by someone outside the structure of the Department of Social Security. The noble Baroness referred to annual reports by chief executives, the Secretary of State, the president of the appeal tribunals and the Audit Office. But the first two of those are in-house reports and the last two do not report in either case on the whole picture. We believe that there should be a single officer who can do so. That is why we propose Amendment No. 3. I beg to move.

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