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Lord Higgins: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness on this occasion, as on many others, for a clear expositiondespite being initially lost for wordsof the issues involved in the regulations. More generally, as far as concerns work and pensions matters, it is extraordinary that the Minister for Pensions, who was whisked away into a Labour Party job, has, months afterwards, still not been replaced. One can assume only that the Prime
I have one or two questions for the noble Baroness. The first is about consultation on the regulations. We are told that consultation has taken place with organisations appearing to the Secretary of State to be representative of the authorities concerned, but we are not given a clear indication of how widespread it has been. Similarly, we are told that there has been consultation with regard to the Council on Tribunals. The explanatory memorandum explains why that was necessary, but we are not told which issues were referred or what conclusions were reached as a result of the consultation with the Council on Tribunals. Is the council now satisfied that the regulations are appropriate?
We are told that the Government have agreed with the Social Security Advisory Committee that the proposals need not be referred to the committee for further consultation. Every time that the issue of the Social Security Advisory Committee comes up, it seems to be the case that it or the Governmentor bothhave decided that it need not consider the matter. I have great difficulty in remembering any occasion since I have been in this post on which it has been consulted on anything. The committee seems to have an uncertain role in such matters. Perhaps I misjudge the situation.
Other than that, I have only one or two points to make, and I would be grateful if the noble Baroness could explain them to us. We are told that Regulation 2 does not contain a right of appeal because that is the case for regulations in other parts of the social security framework. That does not explain, in the first place, why there is no such appropriate arrangement.
With regard to Regulation 3, we are told that there is no right of appeal at the stage at which housing benefits and other benefits are considered because the decision on the amount of income and the amount of capital that is applicable in the case has already been made by the Secretary of State at the stage at which the claim was made for council tax benefit. To what extent would it be clear to the claimant that, if he wished to dispute the income or capital assessment, he must do so at the stage at which the claim is initially made and will not be able to do at the stage at which the local authority is concerned with the housing benefit situation? There seems to be a case for not necessarily saying that someone could not come back at the latter stage, when the housing benefit was being considered. The individual concerned may not fully understand the procedures, which are not as simple for claimants as one might wish.
Baroness Barker: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in his assessment of the position in the Cabinet and in his comments about the noble Baroness. I add my weight to her campaign for a better quality of stationery in the future.
I shall concentrate on many of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, but shall deal with them slightly differently. My questions are coloured by the fact that, as part of my workI declare an interest as an employee of Age ConcernI see information and advice officers struggling to get to grips with the forthcoming introduction of the pension credit. Therefore, I was particularly interested in what the noble Baroness said about the lack of a right of appeal with regard to what is widely acknowledged to be a complex form.
I recall that we deliberated at some length on the original legislation, and the noble Baroness said that she was confident that a great deal of the uptake would be electronic. I had some concerns about that at the time, and I spoke accordingly. In view of what has been said of late about the department's computers, I was right then. I am even more concerned about it now. Can the noble Baroness shed some light on the extent to which computerisation and training of claimants for computerisation has been taken forward?
The noble Baroness was right about Regulation 3 and the fact that there should be no right to appeal twice. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, I would like to know what will be done to ensure that users know at the point at which a pension credit decision is made that there will almost certainly be implications for housing benefit and council tax benefit and what they will be able to dispute.
As usual, I was interested in the issue of consultation. According to the Library notes, there was no consultation on Regulation 2. In view of some of the issues that I mentioned, I would like to know what consultation there has been with prospective users on the matters. Finally, can the noble Baroness, in her pitch for a new job, go slightly further than the dry matter of regulations and say something about the training programme for the administration of the pension credit forms? It seems to be causing widespread concern among practitioners.
It would be fair to say that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, basically raised two questions: one about the consultation exercise and one about the provision of information to claimants for housing benefit under Regulation 3. On the question of consultation, I can say that the Council on Tribunals was content with our
There was a substantive point about the Social Security Advisory Committee. It shared the noble Lord's concern that claimants might not appreciate that the Pension Service's assessment of income and capital could have an effect on their entitlement to HB and CTB. That concern was rightly emphasised today by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. He is right to say that it is important that pensioners know that that is where the decision has been taken that, for example, having capital of £16,500 might rule them out for HB purposes. The department has undertaken to include warning of that and full information about it in the pension credit notification as soon as is practicable. Obviously, I will do my best to keep an eye on it and make sure that the information is clear and unambiguous, so that people realise that it is a passported statement of information for the next set of regulations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, made various points, but the substantive point, I think, related to our degree of confidence about the introduction of the pension credit system in October. She was worried about the word "electronic". I believe that "electronic" includes telephone. We are expecting people to apply originally by telephone. We do not expect there to beI hope that I am not wrongany particular issues that we have not foreseen as regards the introduction of pension credit. First, we are not using a new computer; we are using a tried and tested existing computer. Secondly, we are having a graduated take-on approach. Thirdly, the pension credit is a simple system; it is not a more complex system. Given all of that, we believe that we have anticipated where there may be the inevitable problems associated with the development and extension of an important service to many people.
As regards the telephone service, we are expecting that up until October people will apply by telephone. They will still then receive a written confirmation of that exchange which they then sign. So there is written confirmation. We found from research that elderly people, in particular if they do not have family members to support them, prefer discussion over the phone. It is the best way of ensuring that one has the relevant information on the form. In the past, MIG forms which have been filled out on paper have had to go to and fro because the elderly person has not understood the import of a specific question. The system is designed to be helpful. We have no reason to think that it is not. However, if the organisation with
Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for allowing me to intervene. Is it proposed that the individual will be told by telephone the calculation of their income and capital which will then go on the form? It will be difficult for many people to understand that.
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