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Obscenity Bill [H.L.]

4.18 p.m.

Report received.

Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (Amendment) Order 1999

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 30th March be approved [15th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 30th March be approved [15th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Social Security Commissioners (Procedure) Regulations 1999

4.19 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 21st April be approved [16th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, new regulations are necessary, in place of the Social Security Commissioners (Procedure) Regulations, to govern the procedure for appeals from decisions of unified appeal tribunals, created by the Social Security Act 1998.

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Those draft regulations are, effectively, the final stage in a major programme of reform. I shall, first, set out the various legislative steps in the programme and, secondly, outline the changes. The major element is, of course, the Social Security Act 1998. That Act received Royal Assent on 21st May of that year. Detailed provision for the first two stages of the new system was made in the Social Security and Child Support (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations 1999, which were debated in the House on 23rd March, with two sets of regulations relating to child support.

Two sets of regulations are necessary for consequential changes and modernisation in the upper tier of the appeals arrangements. Those draft regulations relate to the social security aspects of the work of the social security and child support commissioners. A further set, dealing with child support, and subject to negative resolution procedure, was laid last month.

I should also explain the main elements of both the old and the new system, so that we can see the place of those changes in the overall programme of reform. The current system for determining claims and resolving disputes in social security is too long and too complex. The new system looks to resolve disputes more quickly wherever possible or to progress them rapidly to, and through, the appeal stages. I regard that as entirely unobjectionable, provided that the procedures are fair.

The first layer of the decision-making system lies within the Department of Social Security. Hitherto, there have been several different decision-makers, with different official roles and procedures. Now all decisions will be made within the department on behalf of the Secretary of State. I acknowledge that decisions have also, in time past, often been set out in a confusing way. Now they will focus on what is important to claimants and notifications will be simpler and clearer. There will be a new internal DSS procedure to explain and, where possible, to resolve disputes over decisions at an early stage. The aim is to reduce the number of appeals entering the system in the first place.

After that, there will, as now, be two levels of appeal provisions. Here, major changes are made by the Act and the social security and child support regulations. Those were debated in March. There will be a single unified system of appeal tribunals under the Act, with a single consistent procedure. That will replace the five existing tribunal jurisdictions, each receiving appeals from different sources and each with its own procedures. They are the social security appeals tribunals, disability appeal tribunals, medical appeal tribunals, child support appeal tribunals and vaccine damage appeal tribunals. The new appeal tribunals will be administered by a new DSS executive agency, the appeals service.

I shall appoint a president of those appeal tribunals and I shall set up a panel of about 2,500 people qualified in the law, medicine, finance and the needs of the disabled. The members and qualifications of those constituting the individual tribunals will be chosen to match the needs of each individual case. There will also be a flexible panel composition. Panels will comprise, one, two or three members, as the case requires.

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New powers are introduced to enable appeal tribunals to correct their own decisions, again reducing the number of appeals that need to be taken forward. The arrangements for those changes were also made in the earlier set of regulations.

Beyond the new appeal tribunals, appeals are possible only on points of law. The upper tier of the appeal system will continue to be for Social Security and Child Support Commissioners. The draft regulations which we are considering today make provision for a single, consistent route of appeal to the commissioners with common time limits. Further appeal on a point of law and with leave is possible to the Court of Appeal and beyond, but that is comparatively rare.

The commissioners normally sit alone. However, provision has been made in Section 16 of the Social Security Act for the chief commissioner to convene panels of three or more members to hear cases of exceptional difficulty and importance. That provision will be brought into force early next year.

Let me take this opportunity to thank his honour Judge Machin, the chief commissioner of the Social Security and Child Support Commissioners and his colleagues, all of whom will remain in place within the new system, for their valuable help in developing the regulations. I shall now explain the content of the regulations in more detail.

The new regulations replace the Social Security Commissioners (Procedure) Regulations 1987. They aim to improve procedures in two ways. Most importantly, they are simpler and clearer.

Many appellants represent themselves. It is therefore important that the regulations set out the procedures clearly. The current regulations were drafted in 1987 and although they were amended in 1992 and 1997, the language could have been clearer. We have taken the opportunity to recast them as best we can in plain English. The requirement for new regulations has also provided a valuable opportunity for a thorough review. That has allowed us to clarify a number of aspects of the existing regulations.

The provisions for time-limits have been simplified as part of the arrangements for a more consistent and streamlined appeals procedure. One of the problems that appellants faced was the confusing array of time-limits, first in the various tribunals which are being replaced, and then before commissioners.

Your Lordships have already considered the principles behind these changes when debating the earlier tribunal regulations. We have adopted a consistent approach for both the new appeal tribunals and the commissioners. The important thing for appellants to bear in mind is that they now have a month for each stage. This is expressed as simply as possible, in terms of a calendar month rather than by counting days. That means that, if the start date for a stage falls on, say, the 15th of a month, the completion date will be the 14th of the next month. That obviously means that some appellants will have a little more time than others as the number of days in a month varies. For example, in a "long" month, notice starting on the 31st

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will have a completion date of the 30th of the next month. The new uniform limits are intended to be both administratively more convenient and easier to remember for appellants.

For the commissioners, this change means that the current time-limits of 42 days in which to apply for leave to appeal, where an applicant has not been granted leave at tribunal level, and in which to appeal where leave has been obtained, are both replaced by what is termed, "one calendar month". That does not mean that applicants will only have one month to decide whether or not to appeal. They will first be told the result of their appeal to the appeal tribunal. They will then have one month to seek a full statement of the reasons for that, and another period of a month to decide whether to appeal further--making two months in all.

A rather smaller such change of the same nature, made in the interest of consistency throughout the new system, is that the limit for submitting a written observation and making an application to set aside a decision will also be changed from 30 days to what is termed "one month".

Time-limits for notice, of the hearing and for notice to a witness, now 10 and seven days respectively, will both change to 14 days. These time-limit changes match the changes also in the new appeal tribunals.

The regulations contain their own transitional provisions allowing for the phased introduction of the new systems, ensuring that an appellant whose case is already pending should not be prejudiced by the new changes.

There is, finally, an important safety net. The commissioners also retain their present, completely unfettered, power to accept late applications for leave to appeal and late appeals, for special reasons. Any appellant with a good reason for missing a deadline will be able to put it to the commissioner where it will be considered with care and without restriction; not being circumscribed in any way.

To continue, the opportunity of the new regulations has been taken to make express provision, in Regulation 6, for a case to be dealt with by another commissioner if the original commissioner is unable to do so because of long absence or death, so removing a doubt which existed under the previous rules.

Procedural provisions governing the special jurisdiction of the commissioners under the Forfeiture Act 1982 have also been simplified. The 1982 Act requires any question of whether social security benefits have been forfeited in cases of unlawful killing to be determined by social security commissioners. However, such proceedings would not be covered by the Social Security Act 1998 without making special provision. The regulations therefore prescribe the Social Security Act as a relevant enactment for that purpose, in addition to the 10 Acts set out in the 1982 Act. Regulations 14 and 15 set out the relevant procedure.

We have also made some specific procedural improvements. In addition to the commissioners' current powers, the regulations will now enable the commissioners to strike out any proceeding for abuse of

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process as well as for want of prosecution. In both cases, the parties will be given the opportunity to make representations before any such action is taken. The aim is to enable commissioners to dispose expeditiously of cases where either the appellant has failed to take the next steps in the case, despite repeated reminders, or where the proceedings have been improperly brought. Although the latter power is likely to be used extremely sparingly, there are a small number of appellants who repeatedly engage in hopeless manoeuvres, as they are merely vexatious litigants. The commissioners' new power will enable them to deal with those problems effectively.

In social security jurisdiction, many thousands of cases brought by individual claimants can sometimes depend on a point of law, a point of legal principle which has to await a test case ruling from the commissioners or from the higher courts. The 1998 Act therefore provides for handling appeals that raise similar issues and depend also on a "test case".

First, when test cases are identified, arrangements are in hand for them to be expedited if they are still before the commissioners so that decisions are taken as quickly as possible. In that regard, I am particularly grateful for the assistance given by the chief commissioner in working out new procedures to help appellants.

Secondly, the Act provides for similar cases to be stayed by the Secretary of State until a decision on the test case is reached. We intend that decision on the test case to be reached as soon as possible. Regulation 21 sets out the minimum procedural requirements on the Secretary of State to ensure that commissioners identify with certainty those cases already before them in relation to which the new procedure is to be operated.

I hope I have not wearied your Lordships by listing the main changes in the package. If I have, I shall not weary your Lordships further by going over each drafting amendment, especially as I have indicated that those amendments basically simplify the language of the existing regulations.

I believe that the new regulations should be easier for people to understand and to use. Therefore, I hope that your Lordships will accept them and I commend them to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 21st April be approved [16th Report from the Joint Committee].--(The Lord Chancellor.)

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