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Baroness Buscombe: I thank the noble Minister for her explanation. I thank also the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for his support and speech, one of the many, and also the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for his support.

I listened to what the Minister said. I regret that she is not prepared to accept these amendments. I shall read with interest in Hansard her reassurances that much of what I have made reference to will happen in practice. At this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 117 not moved.]

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 118:

Page 62, line 24, at end insert--
("(1A) Regulations shall be made specifying the maximum period which may elapse between the refusal of benefit and the hearing and determination of an appeal, and shall provide, if the appeal has not been heard and determined within such periods, for the applicant to be deemed to have had his case upheld.")

The noble Baroness said: The amendment relates to the maximum period allowed between the refusal of benefit and the hearing and determination of appeal. We believe that the amendment is straightforward. It seeks to ensure that regulations will be made which will clarify the appeal process for those who have been refused benefit because of non-compliance with procedures for a work-focused interview. We should like to know what will be the maximum period between failure to comply with the requirement to take part in an interview, refusal of benefits on that basis and the hearing of an appeal against refusal.

Secondly, what will the appeal procedure be? Thirdly, how many steps will there be? How many opportunities will there be for a claimant to appeal against refusal of benefit? Who will sit on the appeals board, whatever it is to be called? If the appeals board decides to refuse benefit, what will happen to that person? We referred to that when discussing Amendment No. 92E and the other side of the gateway.

As Mr Edward Leigh asked in another place, will the result of non-compliance after appeals mean that those who refuse to take part in the work-focused interview will be suited only to being wrapped in a blanket? I should hope not and therefore we seek clarification in

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relation to the appeal process. If, after the final stage, the person does not accept that he or she must attend an interview, what will happen? I beg to move.

Earl Russell: This is a good amendment. It may concentrate the department's mind wonderfully. However, in passing, I must express a slight regret that it is not just that little bit better; that it does not specify that there shall be no loss of benefit before the appeal. That would have been an even better amendment and we might think about it in the future.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Yes, I can see the charm of that; anybody who might otherwise lose the benefit will promptly appeal, after which, as regards the passport fiasco, "You have seen nothing yet!".

The amendment proposes a special arrangement for appeals by people who fail to participate in a work-focused interview either at the beginning or during the benefit claim. It proposes that, where an appeal is lodged because a decision has been taken to reduce or refuse benefit, should the appeal not be heard within a given period the appellant's case will be treated as upheld. Regulations would lay down the maximum period which should elapse between the refusal of benefit and the determination of the appeal.

As invited by the noble Baroness, it might be helpful if I briefly set out how the decision-making process for work, particularly as it has changed as a result of the DMA Act. The noble Lords, Lord Higgins, Lord Razzall and Lord Goodhart, and I sparred happily over that during the course of last year. As Members of the Committee will be aware, under Clause 52 entitlement to benefit is dependent on a client participating in the "one" interview both at the point of claim and at various trigger points throughout an individual's time on benefit following the occurrence of certain specified events; for example, when the youngest child becomes five, 11 and so forth.

Depending on whether the decision is made in respect of an initial or a triggered interview, a failure to fulfil this requirement would mean either that the claim was not accepted--that the claim had not been made effectively--or, if it was a triggered interview, that the amount in payment is reduced.

The personal adviser who conducts the interview will take a decision on whether or not someone has attended or taken part in an interview. This is not a decision which will be taken lightly and the personal adviser will ensure that the client understands the consequences of his or her actions and that he or she has every opportunity to play a full part.

As a result of the DMA Act our dispute resolution procedures encourage anyone who is unhappy with a decision to contact the decision-maker within one month of the notification. That allows an opportunity to examine the reasons behind any decision and to correct any error. Those procedures will apply to decisions on a failure to take part in a work-focused interview as well as other decisions. The arrangements form part of the changes that demonstrate the Government's commitment to reducing delays in the appeal system.

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They will enable disputes to be dealt with quickly and will avoid formal appeals. In addition, changes to the composition and administration of appeal tribunals will ensure that any appeals that are not resolved at the dispute stage are heard more promptly.

It is appropriate that there should be a further right of appeal, beyond the opportunity to trigger the dispute procedure, against any decision that a client has failed to take part in a work-focused interview. Clause 52 will introduce a new Section 2B into the Social Security Administration Act 1992 to ensure that clients have a right of appeal under Section 12 of the Social Security Act 1998 against a decision that they have failed to take part in a work-focused interview, that they failed to show good cause for such a failure or that they are liable to suffer any particular consequence as a result of failing to take part.

That shows our intention to help and encourage people to meet the requirement placed on them to take part in a work-focused interview when appropriate. We have provided opportunities for those who feel aggrieved to challenge a decision that they have not taken. That can be done within the system inside a month or by using the full appeals procedure.

We do not feel that the amendment would be a sensible way to proceed. A provision that results in all appeals not heard within a specified time succeeding, regardless of whether the original decision was sound, would lead to some perverse outcomes. It would also encourage more people to appeal in the hope that their case would not be heard in time and benefit would be paid. The more people who appealed, the longer it would take for cases to be heard. The system would then be clogged, making it impossible for those with a legitimate grievance to have their case heard promptly. Such a system would serve no one well and would become the classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

The amendment would not result in fair decisions or a good appeals service through the independent appeal tribunal for all clients. I urge noble Lords not to pursue it. Our proposals would give clients every opportunity to participate in the interview, which is not onerous. When a decision is taken that a client has not participated, existing dispute procedures that were introduced under the DMA Act and the appeals procedures, which we hope will now be more streamlined and speedy, will ensure that cases are dealt with promptly and at the right level. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Earl Russell: The noble Baroness has enunciated a slightly dangerous principle. She is saying that people should not be given appeal rights because that only encourages them. Where does that principle stop?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The noble Earl is unfair. I said that if we continue to pay people benefit while they

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appeal, there is every encouragement for anyone who has had benefit taken away to appeal so that they continue to have money paid.

Earl Russell: I hear that. Now will the noble Baroness answer my question? Where does that principle stop?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I do not know what the noble Earl is asking.

Earl Russell: I am asking how many other legal rights and how many other rights to sue for justice the noble Baroness is going to apply that principle to--the principle that it only encourages people.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: This is unfair. No one is suggesting that anyone's rights to appeal should be restricted in any way. On the contrary, by introducing the new disputes procedure in the DMA Act, we are strengthening people's ability to have errors corrected speedily and properly. In no part of the social security system does benefit continue to be paid while somebody is appealing against a decision to discontinue benefit for whatever reason. That would give people a reason to appeal irrespective of the circumstances, even if the appeal was hopeless and beyond the range of the law. I am not saying anything beyond that.

Earl Russell: The Minister ought to read some of her speeches on the Jobseekers Act 1995.

10 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for her explanation. Again, this is a probing amendment to try to ensure that there is a proper safety net for claimants. I should like to read in Hansard what she said in relation to the point at which benefits are removed. It has a number of implications. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 52 agreed to.

Clause 53 agreed to.

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