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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: This amendment seeks to remove the need for people to meet a residence requirement in order to receive income-related benefits. It may be helpful if I explain that the purpose of the habitual residence test and ordinarily resident test is to ensure that income-related benefits--we are not talking about contributory benefits: the right to reside, the right to work and the right to build up contributory benefits are not affected by the habitual residence test--are paid to people with reasonably close ties to the UK and an intention to settle here. Its underlying principle is that UK taxpayers should not have to subsidise through income related benefits people with a very tenuous link, if any, with the UK. What they earn in their own right through work and contributions is a different matter.

In considering whether a person is habitually resident or ordinarily resident, the adjudicating authorities consider a number of factors, including the claimant's attachment to the UK, the reasons for coming to the UK, his employment record and the length and continuity of residence in another country. In most cases it is easy to determine whether someone is habitually resident. In practice, only a small proportion of people need a full examination to establish whether they are habitually resident. The majority of those are able to confirm that they are. That is shown by the figures: 84 per cent of those who take the test pass it; 88 per cent of all UK nationals taking the test pass it.

However, we understood and shared the concerns that have been expressed about the way the test worked in the past. That is why we decided to review it. We, too, had particular concerns about the impact of the test on returning UK nationals--the classic example being the missionary working abroad and coming home. To date, the majority of all people adversely affected by the test have been UK nationals.

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On 14th June we announced our plans for reforming the habitual residence test. UK and other nationals returning to this country from any country overseas who are re-establishing their ties here can now be accepted as habitually resident immediately upon their return. The period in which habitual residence inquiries are made will be reduced from five years to two years. Legislation will be introduced automatically to treat as habitually resident in the UK people brought here from an area of civil unrest or deported to the UK, and improvements will be made to the administrative process. Typical examples would include UK nationals working abroad--the Swaddling case that went to the European Court. It would help UK nationals with overseas links; notably people from black and ethnic minority communities.

I should add that we have advised staff to extend the effect of the Swaddling judgment so that it applies to people returning to the UK from outside Europe. People from ethnic minority backgrounds who travel overseas--for example, to maintain family and cultural links, as referred to by the noble Earl--will therefore immediately be able to re-establish habitual residence upon their return. I hope that that will allay the noble Earl's anxieties. United Kingdom nationals returning due to misfortune, marital breakdown or ill health will be helped by this judgment and UK nationals taken abroad as children.

I am not sure about the noble Earl's reference to the response of Mr Timms. However, my honourable friend made the following statement:

    "The tricky task is to ensure that such abuse is excluded through regulation, without preventing those who should have access to the benefits system from having such access".--[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee D, 27/4/99; col. 1037.]

I am not sure that specific reference was made to children, but I may be wrong.

Although these cases are not always clear cut, UK nationals taken abroad as children would normally be covered by the judgment. Taken together, we believe that our reforms strike the right balance between allowing ready access to income-related benefits to those with genuine links with the UK and protecting the social security system from possible abuse by those who do not so qualify. I hope that in my reply I have addressed the concerns of the noble Earl and that, as a result, he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

6.30 p.m.

Earl Russell: Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may ask her one question that I should have asked in my speech. It arises from a Written Answer by the Minister:

    "We also propose to legislate to add to the categories of people who are to be treated as habitually resident those people who are brought here from an area of civil unrest or who are deported to the UK".

Is such legislation in prospect either in this Bill or in the Immigration and Asylum Bill which is also before this House?

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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I do not know when the legislation is in prospect. I shall write to the noble Earl and let him know. We propose automatically to treat as habitually resident in the UK people who are brought here from an area of civil unrest or who are deported to the UK. It may be that this can be done through secondary legislation since primary legislation is not specified. I shall check and write to the noble Earl, but certainly what I have said is the Government's stated intent.

Earl Russell: I am grateful to the Minister. I apologise for the rather ham-handed way in which I raised the matter. Should the information reach the Minister I shall be extremely happy to give way.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am glad to confirm that we expect to table regulations--as I said, primary legislation is not required--early next year. Therefore, they are not part of either this Bill or any other Bill.

Earl Russell: I am most grateful to the Minister. I shall look at those regulations with very great interest.

I said earlier this afternoon that the Minister was an optimist. She has been so again. She said that the concept of habitual residence was easy to apply. If it were so it would not be applied with such different success rates in such different places. When referring to the definition of habitual residence, the Minister described a number of different tests. I accept that those are the tests, but I am sure that equally she accepts that they may give different answers, one from the other, when all are applied to the same person.

I am also aware that when the previous government were pressed for roughly the concession that the present Government announced on 14th June they regularly replied that under European law they were unable to discriminate between British nationals and others in this way because Article 7 of the Treaty of Rome forbade it. If that was the advice given to the previous government I presume that the legal advice given to the present Government has been different. I would be very interested to know in what respect it is different, or on what ground. Where there are two different sets of legal advice I remain in doubt as to which is correct. I still remain suspicious that perhaps the advice given to the previous government on this subject was correct, and therefore the Government may face another hostile judgment in the European Court of Justice. I warned them that the last one was coming and received the reply, "The Government are confident". They always are. I look forward to the next instalment. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 128YA and 128ZA not moved.]

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Clause 66 [Sharing of functions as regards claims and information]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 128A:

Page 72, leave out line 37 and insert ("the Child Support Act 1991 for a maintenance assessment)")

The noble Baroness said: This is a drafting amendment. However, it may be helpful if I first explain the purpose of this clause. It provides an important step towards modernising the social security system, and it is about providing a streamlined service. The powers in this clause pave the way for an integrated claims service and provide new functions for local authorities. Our aim is that claimants should be able to access the system at any point and transact a range of business at that single point. As the Committee may be aware, at present local authorities may deal only with claims for housing benefit and council tax benefit. This clause enables them to handle claims and information relating to a wider range of social security benefits, as well as war pensions and applications for child support. It also provides for other partners in joint working arrangements to provide the same customer service in respect of claims for HB and CTB.

The Committee will understand that the provisions in this clause, therefore, support the introduction of the "one" service--the single work-focused gateway to the benefit system--that we have already discussed. We have given local authorities the power to do what we have already discussed fairly fully in this Chamber. We intend that regulations made under this clause should specify the social security benefits to which the new integrated service will apply. There will be provision for dealing with claims and the collection of supporting evidence, as well as the handling of more routine social security business that claimants wish to transact, such as reporting changes in circumstances.

Local authorities will be full partners in delivering the customer-focused, integrated service that we envisage. Part of that service will include dealing with child support applications. For example, we have already successfully introduced changes in the way that lone parents' claims for income support are handled. The Benefits Agency now helps customers to complete an application for maintenance at the time they first claim benefit. We want those who approach their local authority to make a claim to be offered the same level of service.

However, the reference in this clause to applications under the Child Support Act is currently too narrow to achieve that aim. It relates only to what are called "private cases", or applications from lone parents who are not claiming benefits. This amendment puts matters right and underpins what we are doing with the "one" service and makes it possible to extend the service offered to people who are non-private cases within the CSA. As a result, we hope that the Committee will accept the amendment.

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