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Lord Goodhart: My Lords, is this provision in the Bill or does it arise somewhere outside the Bill? I have looked for it but am unable to find anything of that kind in the Bill.

Lord Hardie: My Lords, I will try to have it confirmed. My understanding is that it is in the regulations. That is just being confirmed.

There will be in the regulations a provision for a month's dispute period. Within that one-month period, if there is a dispute and if the department considers that the decision was wrong, the department will correct the decision, confirm it and intimate that to the claimant. If the department considers that the decision is correct, that again will be confirmed in writing. If the claimant is unhappy with the decision at the end of the dispute period he has a further month in which to appeal.

As to the proposal in the amendment that the chairman should have a discretion to extend the appeal period, regulations will cover the question of late appeals and make provision for them.

Returning to the question of the timescale, the effect of the dispute period is that an aggrieved claimant would have two months within which to lodge an appeal. This would have the effect of ensuring that appeals were lodged reasonably soon after the decision complained of and, it is to be hoped, tribunals would be seized of the decision sooner rather than later. The longer one allows for an appeal to be lodged the more likely it is that people will wait until the last minute before doing so. It is human nature to delay until the last minute, at least for some people.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am still trying to adjust to the rules of order in your Lordships' House. I apologise if I am not correct in intervening at this point.

I have had considerable difficulty in understanding the point which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate made earlier. I am not clear whether he was saying that the existing regulations provide for this two-month period or whether it is the intention that future regulations would cover the two-month period. I am not at all clear how this two-month period comes about.

Lord Hardie: My Lords, the two-month period is a combination of two separate months. The first month is a dispute period within which a claimant may raise concerns about the decision with the department. At the end of that month a letter will be issued confirming the decision or stating the final decision. So the claimant will receive a letter indicating what the decision is. If the claimant is unhappy with it he goes back to the department. If the department accepts there is a mistake it will issue a corrected decision. If it does not accept there is a mistake it will issue a letter confirming the original decision.

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At the end of that period of a month, the appeal period will commence. There is a period of one month after that within which one has to lodge an appeal. The regulations to which I have referred are future regulations which will be made under Clause 9 of the Bill.

The amendment which we are considering would also require the regulations to give discretion for a legally qualified chairman to accept a late appeal where he considers that the claimant has reasonable excuse for not bringing the appeal within the time limit. There are at present late appeal provisions. They were tightened in February 1996. The changes that were introduced at that time were to help chairmen decide special reasons under which late appeals could be admitted. That was necessary because over a number of years the application of special reasons had become diluted, with some chairmen granting applications where there were no special reasons, and there was no consistency across the country. I am able to say that the department is discussing with the Independent Tribunal Service and welfare rights organisations the new provisions for regulations on late appeals. They will be brought forward in conjunction with and after discussion with these parties, who obviously have an interest, both from the point of the view of the tribunal service and from the point of view of claimants.

We are anxious to ensure that we get the provision for late appeals right. As I have said, we will discuss these with interested parties, including claimant representatives, through the ad hoc group that we have set up to consider draft regulations and new procedures. In doing so, we will have regard to the sort of instances described by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, at Committee where some of the most disadvantaged people are unable to make their appeal within the time limits.

We will also give consideration to the suggestion to include a ground for unforeseen circumstances, but we see no reason why a general time limit of one month--in practice, with the dispute period, two months--which is manageable for the vast majority of appellants, should be extended. We feel that that would have the effect of delaying appeals unnecessarily.

I should like to repeat a point that I made previously concerning the requirement for legally qualified panel members to make decisions on late appeals. We consider that it is unnecessary for a legally qualified panel member to make that decision of whether to allow a late appeal in every case. Such a restriction would be an obstacle to our efforts to establish a modern, efficient service and a service which makes optimum use of legal expertise. There will certainly be occasions where decisions on straightforward cases can be taken by a clerk. They will be rare, but, for example, current regulations specify an absolute time limit of six years for making a late appeal but clerks are not allowed to dispose of those appeals. In no way could an appeal be allowed after that period. That is the sort of issue which could competently be dealt with by a clerk and does not require a legally qualified member.

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With the explanation and assurances that I have given, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

6.45 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, he said, if I have him right, that "may" means the same as "shall". When he said that, was he speaking with the case of Pepper v. Hart in mind and, if so, how far does the principle extend?

Lord Hardie: My Lords, I was not speaking with the case of Pepper v. Hart in mind. I think that it is a principle of draftsmanship with which the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, will be familiar.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, in view of the fact that discussions are continuing with voluntary organisations concerned with these matters, and in the hope that the Government will be prepared to introduce a greater degree of flexibility in regulations than exists at the moment, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 17 not moved.]

Schedule 2 [Decisions against which no appeal lies]:

[Amendment No. 18 not moved.]

Lord Hardie moved Amendment No. 19:

Page 59, line 34, at end insert--

("Reduction in accordance with reduced benefit direction

(" . A decision to reduce the amount of a person's benefit in accordance with a reduced benefit direction (within the meaning of section 46 of the Child Support Act).").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I shall speak to the group of amendments comprising Amendments Nos. 19, 81, 83, 76, 79, 80, 82, 84, 87, 88, 78, 104, 85 and 86. They all amend provisions relating to child support appeals to ensure that parents with child support assessments can have related issues considered easily and effectively.

The procedure which a tribunal follows in dealing with a departure from a child support assessment differs in detail from other appeals because decisions are largely discretionary. Amendments Nos. 81 and 83 insert a provision maintaining the existing rules which govern how a tribunal approaches these issues.

In addition, Amendments Nos. 19, 81 and 83 clarify the appeal rights against a reduced benefit direction. These amendments ensure that claimants are able to appeal the decision to reduce benefit based on its foundation in child support legislation.

Turning to the second group of amendments, Amendments Nos. 76, 79, 80, 82, 84, 87 and 88, these provide for appeals relating to the requirement that certain groups of non-resident father pay a contribution to child support maintenance by deduction from their benefit. These amendments correct an omission from the initial draft of the Bill.

I now turn to Amendments Nos. 78 and 104. These amendments provide a delegated power which will enable us to extend the appeal rights available against

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child support decisions. They allow us to specify additional appeal rights as child support policy and operations develop.

Finally, Amendments Nos. 85 and 86 correct a minor drafting error in the provisions of the new Schedule 4C introduced into the 1991 Child Support Act.

I commend these amendments to the House. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 13 [Redetermination etc. of appeals by tribunal]:

Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 20:

Page 8, line 10, leave out ("shall") and insert ("may").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Clause 14(10) provides that no appeal shall lie from a tribunal to a social security commissioner unless leave to appeal is given by the chairman of the tribunal which decided the case, if available, or of a social security commissioner. Clause 13, which is somewhat back to front--one might have thought that Clause 13 would follow rather than precede Clause 14 but that is a matter for the parliamentary draftsmen--provides that the person to whom the application for leave is made must, in certain circumstances, instead of giving leave or refusing leave, set aside the decision and refer the case back for redetermination by the tribunal. Those circumstances are two: first, that the person hearing the application for leave thinks that the decision of the tribunal was wrong in law; or secondly, that both the parties to the appeal think that the decision was wrong in law, whether or not the person to whom the application for leave is made agrees.

Originally, in Committee, I took the view that what is now Clause 13 was in fact wholly misguided. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hardie, persuaded me that that was not so and that there are cases--for example, where it becomes obvious that a mistake in law has been made by the tribunal, perhaps because a regulation has been overlooked--in which it is appropriate, instead of referring the matter up the tree to the social security commissioner, to pass it straight back to another hearing before the tribunal. Therefore, I accept that there should be a power to order a redetermination, either by the same or another tribunal as appropriate, on an application for leave to appeal to avoid the need to go back up the tree to the commissioner and then be sent down again for redetermination of the case.

But the person to whom the application for leave to appeal is made should have a power to take the short cut of sending it back and never be under a duty to do so, because a mandatory obligation to order a redetermination produces some absurd results.

Let us take the decision of a three person tribunal: there is a split decision; the tribunal has been unable to agree. That particular appeal has raised an important point of law. The chairman believes that it is therefore suitable that that important point of law should go to the commissioner. If the chairman was in the majority, he can give leave to appeal. But if the chairman was the odd one out, then he obviously thinks that the decision of his colleagues was wrong. By definition he does so.

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Therefore, he is bound by Clause 13(2) to refer back the case for redetermination. That is a completely ridiculous result.

Under subsection (3) as it is to be amended, the case would be referred back if both the parties believe that it was wrongly decided. But let us assume a case in which the claimant believes that the tribunal was wrong in law because it gave him too little and the Secretary of State believes that the tribunal was wrong in law because it gave too much. Therefore, the case would simply be in limbo and it could not reach the commissioner even though it was entirely suitable to do so.

This is not by any means the most important amendment to come before your Lordships' House and there is no point of principle here. But there is what seems to me to be an obvious drafting misconception which is producing potentially some very odd results. Therefore, I ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate to accept the amendments or, alternatively, to refer back Clause 13 for redetermination. I beg to move.

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