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A point raised by one of my noble friends in relation to the Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundaries Order was whether it would help to resolve the ongoing difficulty of jurisdiction in the Solway. I hope the Minister can help me on that matter. If he cannot, I shall be happy to receive his reply in writing.
Lord Sewel: My Lords, this is a significant question. The problem of the Solway boundary has befuddled and bewitched us for some time. It is quite difficult to ensure that one can prosecute successfully because of the nature of the boundary being, to put it in common terms, the mid-point of a channel which itself moves from time to time and which is submerged at high tide. In those circumstances it has been somewhat difficult to know under which jurisdictions prosecutions should take place.
The best that I can offer the noble Earl is that, although this order does not affect the common law boundary, it is our hope and intention that we can move to a situation where the rights, particularly in regard to salmon fishing, are brought into consistency with the new boundary that we are proposing.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 4th and 8th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the regulations provide for the new arrangements that will be introduced from the second half of this year. The draft Miscellaneous (Amendments) (No. 2) Regulations contain some consequential amendments to the child support regulations. All these regulations are derived from the powers provided in the Social Security Act 1998.
The Child Support Miscellaneous (Amendments) Regulations make a small number of amendments to the secondary legislation which provides the structure of the child support scheme. For the most part, they correct minor errors and clarify the intention of the legislation in cases of doubt.
The current system of determining claims and resolving disputes in social security is too long and too complex. People have a right to expect their claims and applications to be dealt with correctly and speedily. When they wish to dispute a decision, they expect to see it resolved swiftly wherever possible or progressed rapidly to the appeal stage.
The draft regulations provide for an improved decision-making and dispute resolution system, a simplified appeal system where five different types of tribunals are replaced with a single jurisdiction and the introduction of a modern, accountable appeals service.
Noble Lords will recall that one of the main provisions of last year's Act was to provide that all initial benefit and child support decisions will be made by officers acting on behalf of the Secretary of State. This replaces the current system where there are a variety of different types of decision-maker.
The current inflexible system for reviewing decisions often forces people into a frustrating and time-consuming appeals process. Clients often appeal against a decision simply because they are not aware of any other way, in practice, to get their decision checked. In future, where decisions are clearly wrong, the agencies will put them right quickly with the minimum of fuss. The same straightforward and simple rules on how and when decisions can be changed will apply across all benefits and business areas.
Regulations 3 to 24 contain the detail of the changes to the decision-making process. Regulation 3 allows decisions to be revised and replaced with a new decision, for any reason, where a dispute or appeal is made within one month of the decision being notified. This regulation further provides that some decisions may be revised after the one-month time limit in order that we may be sure that any errors are corrected. Regulation 30 allows an appeal to lapse where someone appeals against a decision at the outset and the decision is revised in their favour. There will, however, be fresh rights to dispute and appeal the revised decision which Regulation 31 confers.
Even where errors are identified outside the one-month time limit and the decision cannot be revised, a decision may be superseded under Regulation 6. Superseding decisions, as Regulation 7 details, will generally take effect from when the decision is made or when the application was made.
In planning for the introduction of these new arrangements the agencies have taken the opportunity to begin to improve their notifications. The notification will invite clients to contact the agency if they are not satisfied with the decision or if they have a query. They will be given the opportunity to discuss it and to present any new relevant information. The agency will then reconsider the case and either confirm the original decision or issue a new one. In either case their right of appeal is protected.
I will now deal with the provisions on appeals. This is covered by Regulations 25 to 59. Current delays in the handling of appeals are unacceptable. Noble Lords will be aware that appeals take, on average, seven months to be heard. Many people wait a year or more. That is unacceptable and this Government are committed to delivering significant improvements in performance.
These regulations introduce a number of important changes. First, they simplify the confusing jumble of time limits that currently operate. At the moment where appeals are lodged out of time, we have different rules governing their acceptance or rejection and the period during which such applications may be admitted. The arrangements are a mess and we propose to replace them with a single one-month limit for each stage of the process. Various regulations--for example Regulation 3 for revisions and Regulation 31 for tribunal appeals--achieve that.
Secondly, Regulation 36 ensures that tribunals have the necessary expertise to deal with the range of issues that may come before them. A disability benefit appeal, for example, will be heard by a three-person tribunal (lawyer, doctor, disability expert) while a retirement pension appeal raising questions of fact and law would normally be heard by a lawyer sitting alone. Such an approach will allow the appeals service to concentrate expertise on the cases that need it and speed the service it offers to all appellants. For the most part it is these regulations that will determine the composition of any particular tribunal. However, where the exercise of discretion is involved I would like to make clear that it will be the president or his judicial staff who will decide
Thirdly, 10 per cent. or more of appeals received by ITS (Independent Tribunal Service) have no prospect of success. For example, child benefit is not payable for children over the age of 19 and an appeal in those circumstances simply cannot succeed because the law is explicit. The same is true in the case of the disability living allowance mobility component in relation to a child under the age of two. It is essential that we build in arrangements to ensure that such cases (10 per cent. of the whole) do not undermine the ability of the appeals service to handle other appeals speedily and effectively. But there will be safeguards to ensure that appeals are handled properly. People will still have the opportunity to argue in front of a tribunal that their appeal is not misconceived if they wish to do so.
Fourthly, I want to make clear to the House that the Government are expanding the role of tribunal clerks from that we envisaged when the Bill was debated. We have done this following discussions with Judge Harris, to whose helpfulness and co-operation I should like to pay tribute. At present tribunal chairmen must spend time dealing with clear-cut interlocutory matters including the disposal of certain appeals. That time would be better spent hearing appeals and helping to ensure that the delays and backlogs in the system are reduced. That will mean a speedier service for all appellants. So we have decided that clerks may handle matters involving a simple assessment of straightforward facts. Regulation 46 gives effect to that. Of course, the clerks will be properly trained to perform these duties and Judge Harris has kindly agreed to assist in both the training and guidance provided for clerks. Clerks will not strike out appeals in any other circumstances. I particularly want to draw the House's attention to these changes both because of their importance and because they represent a change from our earlier proposals.
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