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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, is the noble Lord referring to absentee staff or to failure to attend by clients?

Lord Higgins: My Lords, from my experience in another place, I am referring to both. There were constant problems. On some occasions, people making the appeal did not turn up. That was a major problem. On other occasions, everyone else turned up except the chairman. It is an important point. Can the noble Baroness say whether the aim of reducing the public sector sickness absence level by reducing absence by 10 per cent by 31st December 2000 was in fact achieved? The effectiveness of the regulations and the actions taken under them depends very much on the efficiency of the Appeals Service Agency and, in particular, on the achievement of its targets.

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Those are my only specific points. I did not think that it was appropriate to go into enormous detail on my other points.

Earl Russell: My Lords, when I took my place, I had not intended to say anything about the regulations. But I have heard one thing which I regard as a landmark. This is the first time that I have had to respond to regulations to which the Minister has given a certificate of compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights. It is my duty and very great pleasure to welcome that.

A small moment might usefully be allowed for what the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, once described as "the usual process of osmosis", by which information reaches Ministers in this House. During that moment, therefore, I may perhaps respond to what the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said about targets for sickness absence. I am not at all sure that those are useful. The rate of sickness absence varies much more according to the incidence of 'flu epidemics and ailments of that kind than according to things which government can properly alter. Those who come into work suffering from such ailments usually give them to many other colleagues and increase sickness absence. Any target which puts pressure on people to come into work when they are not fit to do so and in an infectious condition is an unwise one. I am not sure that the noble Lord was prudent to press the Government to insist on it with rather more vigour. I hope that that has allowed the necessary time for osmosis.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, it is a generous instinct on the part of the noble Earl but I fear that it has not happened. None the less, I shall do my best to answer the questions.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, asked about consultation. Housing benefit is nationally financed but is administered locally by local authorities. The noble Lord appeared to suggest that the DSS would have made the errors. No, it is the local authorities that make errors. I am sure that he will accept that. Our prime consultation has been with local authority users. We have been working with them. The other group with which we must statutorily consult is not the Social Security Advisory Committee but the Council on Tribunals. We have worked closely with the council. In addition, we have written to around 30 interested pressure groups, including the CPAG, Centrepoint, Age Concern and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, giving them an outline of the new proposals and inviting comments. If the noble Lord wishes, I can enlarge on some of their responses. Broadly speaking--this follows the appropriate point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell--while some local authorities might prefer longer to introduce the scheme and might prefer to keep an appeal system local, there is none the less a demand for transparent justice. One has a national appeal service and that is

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the point about compatibility with human rights. We discussed those broader issues when we debated the Bill last summer. At the time, noble Lords welcomed it.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene on the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. This is the first occasion when a Minister has said that an instrument is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. If it is appropriate to make such a declaration, would it not be more helpful--given the rather select band of noble Lords in the Chamber at the moment and the extent to which even Hansard may be read on this issue--to put it on the instrument itself?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, that may well be right. I shall follow up that point. It is a perfectly fair one.

The noble Lord also asked about the meaning of "treating a person as a person". I suppose that that is better than the alternative. I shall try to see whether there is a more helpful and useful way of putting it. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, usually asks me about what are called Humpty-Dumpty clauses--when capital is to be treated as income and income is to be treated as capital. I have never quite had one where a person is to be treated as not a person and not a person is to be treated as a person. Let us hope at least that we are being consistent.

I was asked about housing benefit errors. Sixteen per cent of errors in housing benefit are made by local authorities in housing benefit administration. That does not surprise me given the complexity of the issues associated with the rent officer's level, the amount of housing benefit for which one is eligible and back-dating. But those are errors made by local authorities. One of the steps we are seeking to take--we raised it very obliquely in our discussions on the Social Security Fraud Bill--is to strengthen local authorities' capacity to ensure that housing benefit is accurately paid the first time round and to build out both error and fraud.

The noble Lord asked about Appeals Service Agency targets. He did not ask specifically, but it may be worth putting on the record that the target to hear the appeals is meant to be 14 weeks. We are making good progress in that direction. None the less, it is still a longer time than many of us would think desirable.

The noble Lord also asked about absenteeism. I cannot help him on the more general point about the level of absence among support staff, secretarial staff and so on. But most of the tribunals will be held by a single person--a legally qualified chairperson. If the chairperson is not present, the tribunal does not go ahead. Where the matter involves financial complexity, a financial person will be involved. A landlord--landlords may appeal as well as tenants--might have complex books and arrangements. We therefore need that kind of expertise. Under the present system, introduced as of last year, I would expect absenteeism of the professionals at the tribunal level to be very modest indeed--except, as the noble Earl said, when one is hit by a 'flu epidemic.

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Another issue is the problem of people who wish to appeal failing to turn up. We debated it at some length last summer. As the noble Lord will recall, our response in that context was to go for paper hearings. If someone had failed to notify that he was going to attend in person, although the forms--partly as a result of pressure from the noble Earl, Lord Russell--made it clear that he probably had a better chance of having his case heard in the way he would wish if he attended in person, there would be a paper hearing. That has allowed us to reduce a good many of the delays. In some cases, we have had to cancel half of the morning sittings because people have not turned up.

I think that I have covered all the points raised by the noble Lord. I am glad that both the noble Lord and the noble Earl felt able to welcome the regulations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Social Security Commissioners (Procedure) (Amendment) Regulations 2001

8 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I have spoken to these regulations and I hope that noble Lords will allow me to move them formally. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14th February be approved [8th Report from the Joint Committee.]--(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I wish to make only one short point about the Explanatory Memorandum. In the previous debate we treated the Explanatory Memorandum with a degree of facetiousness, but I think that this is an important issue. Once again, I am rather puzzled by the memorandum. It appears to be an Explanatory Memorandum for the regulations now before us. However, almost none of it refers to these regulations, but is expressed in the following terms:

    "The Social Security Commissioners (Procedure) Regulations 1999 were recently amended by the Social Security Commissioners (Procedure)(Amendment) Regulations 2000 ... The amendments were in consequence of the transfer under the Tax Credits Act 1999 ... of functions relating to family credit and disability working allowance (now known as working families' tax credit and disabled person's tax credit) from the Department of Social Security to the Treasury and the Board of Inland Revenue".

All that may be immensely illuminating, but it refers to the previous regulations rather than to the regulations before us. I am not at all clear why, other than demonstrating that the Government amend their regulations on an annual basis, this explanation is supposed to be helpful.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I hope that the Minister will forgive me. Does this arise from the crossword puzzle problem to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, drew our attention during the debate on

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Bill do now pass on the Social Security Fraud Bill? That is a general problem. If this is designed to explain that, I would regard it as helpful.

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