HC Deb 19 March 1980 vol 981 cc565-8
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I beg to move amendment No. 70, in page 19, line 7, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 71, in clause 15, page 22, line 20, at end add— '(4) The day appointed for the coming into force of subsection (1) of this section shall not be earlier than 1st January 1983.'.

Mr. Bennett

The amendments cover two points that caused us concern in Committee. The present role of the National Insurance Commissioner is being extended- He will be responsible not only for national insurance appeals, but also for those relating to social security. We are all aware that the commissioner takes a very long time to hear existing appeals. That is unsatisfactory. However, if he were to take an equally long time to process appeals on supplementary benefit, it would be even more unsatisfactory.

We therefore suggest that "may" should be changed to "shall". We wish to prompt the Lord Chancellor. We wish to ensure that sufficient people are appointed to clear the backlog. We must ensure that appeals are heard promptly. Amendment No. 70 makes a small, but important, point. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that the Government are determined to clear the backlog. Appeals cause great anxiety and hardship.

Amendment No. 71 was tabled because we are concerned that the right of appeal is being taken away. People who are dissatisfied with the response from the local appeal tribunal will have the right of appeal only in limited circumstances, which can only be justified once case law has been established and people know their rights under the new regulations.

Our amendment suggests that the limiting of right of appeal should not come into operation until 1983. In the interim people should retain the right of appeal if they are dissatisfied with local decisions. They should not have to ask permission from the chairman or be entitled to that right only if it is a split decision.

I hope that the Minister will assure us that people will be encouraged to appeal, particularly in the interim period, until case law is established.

Mr. Prentice

I ask the House to reject amendment No. 70, for two reasons. First, it is misconceived. The subsection applies only when the Lord Chancellor considers that he should appoint a deputy commissioner for such period or occasion as he thinks fit. It would therefore be meaningless to add the word "shall". The Lord Chancellor will make the appointment if he thinks it necessary, subject to the availability of suitable appointees.

Secondly, the language follows that of the Courts Act 1971, which provides that the Lord Chancellor may appoint deputy high High Court judges and deputy circuit judges. A deputy commissioner would have the same status as a deputy judge and the same conditions of appointment would apply.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Disregarding the wording, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a problem over the time taken to deal with appeals?

Mr. Prentice

That is the major reason for rejecting amendment No. 71. We are concerned about the time taken to decide appeals to the National Insurance Commissioner and the backlog of cases built up over a number of years. It is therefore urgent to clear, I shall not say frivolous appeals but appeals where the grounds are so slender that there is little chance of success.

The position is safeguarded if the tribunal is divided on its decision. Even if it is unanimous, there will be the right to app[y for leave to appeal to the commission. The automatic right of appeal to the commissioner is what is being amended, and the change should take effect from November. It will contribute towards quicker decisions on the large number of outstanding appeals.

Mr. Bennett

The Government have once again not given us the assurances that we seek. They are trying to cut down the number of appeals rather than have them heard quickly.

At this time of night it is perhaps preferable to withdraw the amendment and hope that in another place concern will be shown for appeals to be held quickly and for people not to be stopped making genuine appeals. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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