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Lord Archer of Sandwell: I would not presume to embellish a case which has been made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, or by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. I venture to support it. There are three reasons why there is much to be said for having to give reasons. First, as a discipline, it assists those who have to take the decision. If you have to give reasons why you are doing something you have to think your way through the problem. You have to ensure that the conclusions follow from the premises and that the whole thing hangs together.
Furthermore, it is extremely good discipline to find yourself explaining an issue in a way which can be followed by those who do not necessarily share your technical knowledge. For 26 years in another place, I tried to test everything that I did by asking myself the question, "Can I explain this at ten o'clock on a Saturday evening in Rowley Labour Club?". Frequently I would have to do so and if I could not I thought about it again. That is the first reason why I believe that the amendment will improve the quality of decisions if we require those who make them to explain them.
Secondly, reasons help the claimant to understand what is happening. If the decision is right it is much better that the claimant should know clearly that it is right and why, if only because that may prevent many totally unmeritorious appeals. One of the difficulties which the ITS must cope with relates to appeals which have no prospect of success, but which are brought because the right decision has not been explained to the claimant. If the decision is wrong the claimant and those advising him will be able to see the reasoning. They will be able to see that the argument is wrong and point to where it is wrong. That will save them and everyone else a great deal of time and enable them clearly to present a letter of appeal and the case.
Thirdly, it is a great advantage for those who finally have to adjudicate on the appeal. Those who adjudicate frequently have the papers beforehand, although not invariably these days, and that is a matter which we may debate on some other occasion. But if you have the papers before the hearing of an appeal and you have before you set out clearly the reasons for the decision, you can see whether it seems persuasive. You will obviously have to hear the arguments. Someone may point out something that you have overlooked. But you may say, "That looks right to me", or you may say, "No, they have gone wrong here and I can put my finger on precisely where they have gone wrong". That will save an enormous amount of time at the hearing.
As I understand it, the whole purpose of the Bill is to try to save time and resources at the appeal hearings. Therefore I hope that when my noble friend replies she will at least agree with the principle behind the amendment and that those who take decisions should give clear and comprehensive reasons for those decisions. I hope that she will go on to say--although I see that it is a separate argument--that that should appear on the face of the Bill.
Those of us who have been in government know that when you are in government you tend to be rather more resistant to things appearing on the face of Bills and prefer to reserve them to secondary legislation than is the case when you are on the Back Benches or Opposition Benches. However, I hope my noble friend is persuaded also in that regard.
The Lord Advocate (Lord Hardie): This amendment seeks to place on the face of the Bill a requirement for the Secretary of State to provide an explanation, in writing or by some other means, of a decision to any person directly affected by it. It also requires the explanation to be sufficiently full to enable the recipient to decide whether to apply for a revision, supersession, or Social Fund review, or an appeal.
I agree entirely with the comments made by my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell when he set out the three reasons behind this amendment. It is important to improve the quality of decisions. It is important--indeed, essential--that claimants understand decisions. I accept that it is a clear advantage to those who are charged with the burden of adjudicating on appeals.
It will be apparent from what I have just said that, while I understand and sympathise with the thinking behind the amendment, I hope that I can explain why I do not believe that this is the right way forward. In other words, there is not an objection to the concept behind the amendment but rather an objection to the means of achieving it. It is the last point made by my noble and learned friend which I address as to whether it should be on the face of the Bill or dealt with in regulations.
Clause 13(5) of the Bill requires that persons with a right of appeal be given such notice of their decision and right of appeal as prescribed in regulations. It is our intention to use the regulation-making power in that
I pause there to comment on the examples given by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. It is accepted that we have been inadequate on occasions in the past and it is accepted that improvements are essential, particularly if this new regime is to achieve its objective. There is no doubt that there is definite room for improvement, and single-status decision-makers and outcome decisions provide the opportunity for those improvements.
Outcome decisions will place the onus on clients to dispute an aspect or aspects of a decision which they believe to be wrong. However, to enable them to do that they must have better, clearer explanations of decisions. The explanation which they receive will make it clear what factors were considered in reaching the decision, thereby enabling them to identify whether there is truly something which would justify taking further action.
As I said, it is essential that we notify customers in a clear and informative way of the decision which has been taken. We must also tailor the way in which we explain matters to the needs of particular customers.
We shall need to give explanations in a permanent medium and the majority will continue to receive explanations in writing. But there may be issues, for example about non-Braille reading blind people, where another medium would be more appropriate. As we look to the future we shall wish to make greater use of new technology in all our communications.
By offering an improved service and improving the structure and content of our written notices, we shall aim to help customers to be better able to exercise their choices; to seek a revision of a decision from the agency; or to pursue an appeal to an independent tribunal.
As I have said, I accept that there is room for improvement, as the noble Earl has clearly illustrated. But we believe that all those provisions are more appropriate to secondary legislation. Perhaps I might take up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, about why there are such wide-ranging regulation-making powers in the Bill. The aim of the proposals is to introduce further flexibility in handling social security matters. That would be limited if the detailed proposals were set out in primary legislation. The regulation-making proposals have been scrutinised by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee and it has commented on them. My noble friend Lady Hollis will deal later with some aspects of those comments.
In drafting the new legislation, we have tried to strike a balance by setting out a framework of rights and responsibilities in the Bill and leaving the detail to secondary legislation and guidance so that the
Earl Russell: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for a great deal of what he said. I am grateful to him for what he said about Braille and I am grateful to him in particular for his admission that things have been going wrong. There rests between us only the final point touched on by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, in a speech which I thought had very great force; that is, the question of the face of the Bill.
I wonder quite how well every person who works in a benefit office knows every regulation which comes out of the Department of Social Security. I am sure that there are not many who do. I wonder also whether the method of regulation-making which tends to go for a process of total enumeration and always forgets some categories is precisely the right vehicle for an obligation which should be expressed in general terms and be capable of being applied to situations which have not been foreseen.
But since I shall be returning to the regulation-making power and its limitations on Amendment No. 9, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment now and return to the issue of regulations on Amendment No. 9 and no doubt on many other occasions.