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Social Security and Child Support (Decisions and Appeals) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002

7.51 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 10th April be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the first of the draft statutory instruments before the House today makes amendments to regulations governing decision-making and appeals for social security benefits, child support, housing benefit and council tax benefit and tax credits for Great Britain. Responsibility for tax credits lies with the Inland Revenue, and so the commissioners of the Inland Revenue will join in making these regulations.

The second of the draft statutory instruments makes a number of identical amendments to those in the first set of regulations, but for tax credits in Northern Ireland only. Your Lordships are no doubt aware that tax credit issues for Northern Ireland are not devolved to the Assembly but are reserved to the Westminster Parliament and so are the responsibilities of the Inland Revenue. However, the amendments in the second set of regulations, in so far as they are needed for tax credit purposes, exactly mirror the provisions within the first set of regulations for which Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions are responsible.

With the permission of the House, I intend during the remainder of the debate to refer to individual regulations as they are numbered in the Social Security and Child Support (Decisions and Appeals) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002. In doing so, however, your Lordships will appreciate that I am referring also to the corresponding regulations, where appropriate, within the tax credits Northern Ireland regulations.

The amending regulations correct errors and omissions in the regulations that have come to light since they were subject to significant amendment in June 2000; they clarify existing provisions where there is uncertainty as to precise meaning; they implement minor changes in decision making and appeals policy

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now that we have had the opportunity to see the policy working in practice; and they make equivalent amendments, where appropriate, to the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations.

Your Lordships will be relieved to hear that I have no intention of explaining the purpose of each individual amendment. I would, however, like to draw your Lordships' attention to the broad areas covered by the amendments and to some of the more noteworthy changes.

Regulations 3 to 6 make amendments to regulations dealing with decision-making and, in particular, to regulations providing for the revision of decisions. Regulations 7 to 11 make amendments to regulations dealing with general matters in relation to appeals, including time limits and rules for making appeals.

Your Lordships may be interested, in particular, in Regulation 10, which provides that first-tier decision makers may admit late appeals where the conditions in the regulation are satisfied. At present, an application for an extension of time must be determined by a legally qualified panel member. This amendment will speed up the process for dealing with late appeals and will avoid having to refer cases to a legally qualified panel member where it is clear that the conditions for a late appeal are satisfied. To ensure justice for appellants, if a first tier decision maker is not inclined to allow a late appeal, or the application is made under the reasonable prospect of success condition, then the matter will be determined by a legally qualified panel member.

Regulations 12 to 15 make amendments to regulations dealing with appeals procedure, striking out of appeals and oral hearings. Regulation 13, in particular, provides for tribunal clerks to reinstate certain appeals which they have struck out. At present, only a legally qualified panel member can reinstate a struck out appeal. This change will speed up the process for appellants and will be less costly. As with the amendment that I explained a moment ago, however, to ensure justice for appellants, if the clerk is minded not to reinstate a struck-out appeal the ultimate decision will be for a legally qualified panel member.

Your Lordships may also be interested in Regulation 14, which provides that a panel member, other than the chairman, or a party to the proceedings may be present at an oral hearing by live television link. This is conditional upon the appellant agreeing that it can take place. This amendment, which is made possible by advances in new technology, will facilitate future attendance at oral hearings by live television link where it is difficult for an individual to be present in person.

Regulations 16 to 20 amend regulations dealing with decisions of appeal tribunals and applications for leave to appeal to social security commissioners.

Regulations 21 and 22 amend schedules dealing with social security decisions against which there is no right of appeal and qualifications of persons appointed to the panel to hear appeals. Regulation 21, in

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particular, inserts a list of non-appealable decisions made in accordance with the claims and payments regulations. Although we are not aware of any specific examples of people losing out, there has been some uncertainty about some appeal rights which were inadvertently missed under the existing provision. The new list therefore restores these appeal rights to the position that existed before the changes of 1999.

Finally, Regulations 23 to 28 make amendments to the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations to mirror the amendments to the main decisions and appeals regulations I have already outlined.

I have tried to outline some of the more significant changes introduced by these regulations. Others are of a technical nature. I intend to leave it very much at that. However, I will be happy to deal with any points that your Lordships may wish to raise on any of the amendments.

In conclusion, the regulations before us this evening make small but important changes and improvements to the decisions and appeals regulations. I am satisfied that the regulations are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. I commend the regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 10th April be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

Lord Higgins: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for that detailed explanation of the two orders. He did not mention that there are provisions in the orders for changing the title of the department from "Social Security" to "Work and Pensions", something which I have previously said was a mistake because "Work and Pensions" does not cover all aspects of the department's work whereas "Social Security" did.

Moreover, it is true that earlier we were not in the situation that we are in now where, having abolished the Department of Social Security, it none the less keeps turning up, rather like the smile on the face of the Cheshire Cat after the Cheshire Cat has disappeared, in terms of the Social Security and Child Support (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations and so on.

That said, we on this side of the House welcome a number of the provisions. To mention one in particular, it is clearly important to clarify the time limits under Regulations 9 and 11, although I am not sure that "clarify" is not a euphemism for a change in the time limits—since one would have thought that the previous regulations were sufficiently clear. Similarly, we welcome the provision for the correction of accidental errors. But, again, it seems rather strange that that did not appear in the earlier regulations.

So far as concerns the substance, I welcome the provision for oral hearings by live television link. I spent many hours in another place dealing with child support cases. One of the problems we faced was the difficulties experienced by certain people in appearing in person at an appeal—for example, the person might be disabled. Also, from time to time, the person would

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turn up for the appeal and perhaps the chairman or other members of the panel would not. So this provision should enable there to be some savings, not only in cost but in terms of improvement as regards convenience.

The Explanatory Memorandums in the two orders are not precisely the same. In the first, the reference is:

    "associated amendments apply to tax credits and social security benefits"—

without specifying what they are. The Northern Ireland regulations are clearer. They include the reference:

    "in relation to working families' tax credit and disabled person's tax credit".

What puzzles me is that, under the Tax Credits Bill which is now before the House—but for the fiasco as regards the drafting we should have been debating it this afternoon, but shall now be debating it on Thursday—the two credits referred to in the Northern Ireland regulations, which I imagine are the ones referred to in the other regulations, although the Explanatory Memorandum does not say so, are both about to be "superseded". The Bill refers to credits which are "superseded" by tax credits being abolished. One of these is the working families' tax credit; the other is the disabled person's tax credit. Why does this order include a reference to those if they are about to be abolished in the Bill that is before the House? Will there be a further set of regulations; or should some provision have been included in these regulations to allow for a likely change? At all events, it seems a rather strange moment to introduce the regulations if in fact there are about to be changes in the near future in other legislation.

Other than that, these are helpful, relieving provisions. We on this side of the House welcome them.

8 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, first, I thank the Department of Social Security—the Department for Work and Pensions; I beg the noble Lord's pardon—for all its usual courtesies. It is one of the most courteous, efficient and well-run departments in Whitehall. In particular, I thank it for its latest courtesy, which is only a few minutes old—namely, providing me with a spare copy of the Minister's Explanatory Memorandum. I had foolishly mislaid my copy during the course of the day. It is most welcome.

The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, once told me that I was like the little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead. I do not know which the Minister will find me to be today, but I hope that I may have some cautious optimism on the point.

There is nothing in the contents of the regulations to which I wish to object. I should like to give a particularly warm welcome to the contents of Regulation 2, dealing with partners and couples, and to the contents of Regulation 13, which the Minister covered thoroughly, dealing with the striking out of

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appeals. Perhaps I may also be permitted to give a personal and proprietary welcome to Regulation 10. This regulation embodies an amendment which I tabled at every stage of the child support regulations. When we debated the first Bill, in 1991, it would have come up at two o'clock in the morning, so I did not move it. I then found that it had been tabled for the next stage of the Bill in the name of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. In 2001, I was not quite so lucky, but I have got there now. If the Minister will forgive me—I mean no discourtesy by this—it reminds me of one of my father-in-law's favourite First World War songs:

    "The butterfly has wings of gold

The firefly of flame, The little flea has no wings at all, But he gets there just the same". We have this provision now; it is law, and I am delighted.

The regulations raise another issue—and I believe that this is the answer to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins: why now? It is the issue of flexibility. Ministers always invoke "flexibility" when they introduce regulations. Flexibility is what Ministers rely on whenever they cannot have a hot dinner—and I hope that the noble Lord will have one later.

I remember one occasion, when wearing my other hat, trying to work out for the 17th century what were the general principles that made some matters require a statute and others not. One of them turned out to be simply that the thing that needed to be reversed had been done by legislation. That seems to apply here. We need new regulations because a great many provisions embodied in previous regulations have to be changed because they have become out of date. So regulation begets regulation, which begets regulation, which begets regulation—until we have a veritable house of cards.

The flexibility is very much that of the spider's web. I say that as one who claims several different descents from Robert the Bruce, so when I talk about spiders' webs I take them seriously. This "flexibility"—more and more regulation—reminds me of the story of the black pudding. Two Czech peasants, so very poor that they were at subsistence level, were visited by a fairy, who said that they could have any three wishes that they wanted. The man said: "I'd like a black pudding". The woman said: "What a silly wish. I hope it sticks to the end of your nose". So they had to use a third wish to get it off. So the flexibility created by regulations is somewhat illusory.

I make no comment on the Northern Ireland regulations, on which I am not an expert. I never claim the authority to speak on Northern Ireland if I can possibly avoid it. However, I have taken advice on it from Elizabeth Hanna in the Whips Office, who is a rising politician in her own right from a Northern Irish background, and I understand that she has taken advice from other Northern Irish sources in some

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number. I am assured that the Northern Ireland regulations give no more cause for anxiety than the British ones. I am happy to welcome them both.

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