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Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 14:

After Clause 8, insert the following new clause--

Entitlement to certain benefit payments and information and evidence required to support claim

(" .--(1) The Secretary of State shall, in such manner as is prescribed, inform with sufficient particularity a person wishing to make a claim for a relevant benefit what information and evidence is required to support the claim.
(2) Subject to paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 to the Jobseekers Act, where the Secretary of State makes a decision awarding income support, or jobseeker's allowance, the claimant shall be entitled to payment from no later than the date when the claim for it was made.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, we covered much of the basic arguments on this amendment in Committee. We were left with the issue behind the basic argument, which is the Department of Social Security's immense confidence in its own judgment.

The basic purpose of Amendment No. 14 is to reverse the onus-of-proof regulations introduced in October 1997. The point of those regulations was that the start of a claim could be delayed if the claimant was late in providing supporting evidence except in certain specified circumstances set out in regulation. It is easy

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to list circumstances in which the claimants may not be to blame for not supplying supporting evidence. The department's reply to that is that it can foresee all those circumstances and specify them in regulations.

That is a remarkable piece of confidence. The Department of Social Security increasingly reminds me of an 18th century enlightened despot. It is benevolent; it means well; but it has great confidence in its ability to do well according to its own standards of judgment. It does not very often see the need for those standards of judgment to be checked against an external point of reference. For example, exemption is provided in the regulations for mental illness, but we all know that many of those suffering from mental illness have not yet had it diagnosed and may be just as much handicapped as those who have had it diagnosed. There is provision for them to get help if it is needed, but those who most need help are very often those who least know that they need it.

I have not seen any provision in the regulations specifically for illiterates, although they might be covered under the provision that help is needed. I remember discussing in this Chamber a case involving an illiterate who had been summoned to attend the courts. The person who read his letters for him happened to be away for that week so he waited until he came back to get the letter read. When his reader did come back he found that it was too late and that he had already been disentitled to benefit. That is just the kind of thing that no department foresees. We may now foresee that particular case because it has happened before, but this regulation-based method of legislation is one which leads to the endless locking of stable doors after horses have been stolen. It does not lead to the recovery of the horses.

It has been argued by the department that claimants need to be under an incentive to get their supporting evidence in on time. But that argument can apply only to those who do not genuinely need the benefit. If you do genuinely need a means-tested benefit, you are actually in need; you need the money now. This is like an argument that people will not put in their claims for winning the lottery unless they have an incentive to do it. Camelot has thought of a lot of things but I do not think that it has yet thought of that one.

The necessity is very far from instantly apparent. Indeed, there are many people, especially people who may have just suffered a traumatic event, who do not get paper in on time simply because they cannot find it. When I think of the task of finding paper in my study I can think of the possibility of taking a month to find a document I need badly, even when I know perfectly well what it is I need and I know I have to look for it. I do not by any means believe that I am unique in that.

These are a bureaucratic series of provisions capable of causing gross hardship, imposed, I have no doubt, in the fullest good will but showing a confidence in the

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department's judgment which is the kind of confidence to which I think none of us in this world is really entitled. I beg to move.

Lord Hardie: My Lords, this amendment to a large extent repeats the one put down by the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, at the Committee stage which was not pressed. The amendment has been redrafted, but the change does not overcome the Government's fundamental objection to it. Our objection is that it is unnecessary because the group which it aims to protect is already protected by existing legislation.

Subsection (1) seeks to place new statutory obligations on the Secretary of State to inform claimants of evidence requirements in such a way as will be prescribed in regulations. I am fully aware of the importance of ensuring that claimants understand what they are expected to provide when they make a claim. That is why we introduced the evidence or onus of proof regulations, to which I shall come later. However, we believe that the best way to achieve this is through agency communications and procedures, not through regulations.

Claim forms for benefits already request the required information and we will be looking to improve these forms further. In acknowledging that we will be looking to improve the forms, the department is not complacent. It recognises that improvements can always be made to any system. Regulations could remove the flexibility to experiment and to innovate in order to continue to improve the effectiveness of our communications.

I turn now to subsection (2) of the proposed new clause. The concerns of the noble Earl cover two issues relating to the date of claim; first, the relationship between the date of claim and the evidence or onus of proof requirements; and, secondly, the backdating of claims for benefit. These are separate issues. It may be helpful to your Lordships if I explain how the evidence regulations on backdating work to understand better why the amendment is unnecessary.

The evidence requirement regulations currently apply to income support and jobseeker's allowance. They apply only after a claim has been made. Those words are significant. Once the claimant has indicated an intention to claim, he or she has one month in which to provide the evidence and information required by the Secretary of State to satisfy evidence requirements. If this is done within that period then the date of the first contact is the date of the claim and the date from which benefit will be paid. The vast majority of people have no difficulty in complying with these regulations.

However, I acknowledge, as the noble Earl pointed out, that there will be people, often vulnerable groups, who for reasons beyond their control cannot provide the information or evidence required. These people are explicitly recognised by the exemption criteria written into the regulations. Perhaps I may pause to consider the examples used by the noble Earl. Although they are not specifically referred to in the exemption to the evidence requirements, they are the kind of cases that the department would look at sympathetically and would

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probably exempt in any event. I am thinking of the example of the person who was illiterate and through not fault of his own was unable to understand that there was a time limit within which he had to make the application.

For people in the vulnerable categories who are covered by exemptions the date of the claim will also be the date of the first contact. In other words, under the current evidence requirements the regulations have been drafted so that no one should lose benefit. I hope your Lordships will be reassured to learn that this will not be changed under the new system.

The time limit for providing evidence to support a claim for income support or jobseeker's allowance should not be confused with the time limit for backdating a claim for benefit. The evidence regulations are concerned with events after the claim has been made. Backdating the date of claim is concerned with events before the claim is submitted. People usually claim income support or jobseeker's allowance immediately because, as the noble Earl observed, they have an immediate need for the money. However, benefit will continue to be backdated by up to three months if there are special reasons for delaying a claim. Those reasons would include illness, disability, domestic emergencies and incorrect information by the department. Another example used by the noble Earl at the Committee stage was bereavement. That would fall within the category of a domestic emergency. The department would look upon that favourably. Subsection (2) of the amendment would not improve on the provisions. For these reasons we cannot support it.

I have listened carefully to what has been said and I sympathise with the concerns expressed by the noble Earl. I fully appreciate that he and other noble Lords quite properly wish to protect vulnerable groups. I can assure the House that the Government already do so, will continue to do so and are committed to doing so. I hope that I have reassured the noble Earl that the amendment is unnecessary and I trust that he will feel able to withdraw it.

6 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for what he said about the claimant who was illiterate and the reader who was away. Unfortunately, that is not what actually happened in that case: he did lose benefit. The noble and learned Lord has also illustrated the great value of the concession that he made earlier about lawyer-members of appeal panels. He has set out to discern the principle behind the regulations and attempted to apply that principle to the kind of cases that I have cited in just the sort of way for which legal skills are most valuable.

But behind that there still remains a very real area of disagreement. I did not suppose for a moment that I had overcome the Government's most fundamental objections. We have here a clash of cultures which is even more a constitutional matter than a social security matter. We are here arguing about two different methods of legislation. Legislation by detailed regulation involves confidence in the department's capacity to enumerate in advance all possible causes of hardship.

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I am sure that the noble and learned Lord is already aware of the comments on that subject in the Renton Report which I have repeated many times and will not repeat again today. We have a culture clash here to which we shall return. I hope that over the years we shall have a little more meeting along the edges of it. I do not believe that we are getting any further tonight. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12 [Appeal to appeal tribunal]:

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