HC Deb 02 May 1984 vol 59 cc498-9
Mrs. Beckett

I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 17, leave out lines 4 to 11 and insert—

  1. '(a) persons who appear to the President to represent employed earners;
  2. (b) persons who appear to him to represent employers and earners other then employed earners; and
  3. (c) persons who appear to him to have knowledge or experience of conditions in the area and of the problems of living on low incomes.
(2A) Before appointing members of a panel the President may take into consideration any recommendations—
  1. (a) from such local committees representing employers or employed earners or both; or
  2. (b) from such organisations concerned with the interests of employers or employed earners; or
  3. (c) from such voluntary organisations included on the list of lists maintained by the relevant Regional Health Authority or Authorities in accordance with regulations made under section 22(3A) of the National Health Service Act 1977; or
  4. (d) from such other organisations or from such persons as he considers appropriate. '.
I appreciate that the wording of the amendment may not be perfect. However, we are seeking by it to restore some degree of the balance that was established by the measure which last year set up the new tribunals. The Minister said in Committee that there had been agreement between the parties only a year ago about the basis on which the panels should be established and should operate. Then this year in this Bill the Government have sought to change that agreement and to give very wide powers to the president of the tribunal to decide of whom the panel should be constituted, from which bodies he should draw even the people eligible to serve on the panel and so on.

We should like to fetter that discretion to some extent. We accept all the things the Minister said about what a wonderful man and how impartial the president is. Our faith in the impartiality of the legal profession is not always sustained, but we are willing to take the Minister's assurances on this point. Nevertheless, we feel that we should write something into the legislation to show to the president from what groups within society we expect him to draw the people who should serve on tribunals. Over the years the expertise of trade unionists and of the people who represent employed earners has proved of enormous value and they are a necessary element in tribunals. To bring in people who have experience of the problems of low incomes is also a valuable step forward.

We also sought a method of suggesting the sort of voluntary organisations from which the president might seek to draw members. The Minister mentioned in Committee that there was a danger that academic sociologists and people of that nature, against whom he seemed to have a minor grudge, might be the only people put forward. Therefore, we sought to suggest the sort of people to whom the president might look. In this proposal we are trying to restore some of the balance that was in the legislation passed last year. I hope that the Minister will look with favour on the amendment.

Mr. Meadowcroft

One of the great problems is that the appellants and the people who serve on all tribunals have a different understanding of how the tribunals work. The different ways in which people are used to working are often apparent only when one has to assist someone who is appearing before a tribunal. Anything which would assist in changing the way tribunals work so as to make them less formal and less frightening to those who appear before them and which would reduce the pressure for people always to be represented, even if only by a union official, would be beneficial.

Mr. Newton

May I assure the hon. Lady that I have nothing but sympathy with academic sociologists in view of the amount of American sociological verbiage that they must have to wade through.

The proposed amendment seems to be a valiant effort to do something with which I have a good deal of sympathy, but I do not think that it has quite come off. Subsection (1)(c) is more restrictive than our original formula which includes the phrase:

to be representative of persons living or working in the area. I do not think that the amendment broadens that provision. Rather it narrows it. I see real difficulties because of the word "and" in the middle. It refers to

persons who . . . have knowledge or experience of conditions in the area and of the problems of living on low incomes. That could be very restrictive. Therefore, I have drafting worries. There are also technical problems with which I shall not weary the House.

One way and another I am sympathetic to the spirit of what the hon. Lady is trying to bring about, and it corresponds with the spirit of the Government's approach. More to the point, I have little doubt that it corresponds with the spirit in which the president will approach his job, although in no way can I dictate to him what he should do.

Even though I cannot accept the amendment in the form in which it stands, I think it would be appropriate for me to bring to the attention of the president of the appeal tribunals what the hon. Lady has proposed, and the remarks that she and I have made, as reflecting a widespread view in the House and something which he may care to take into account. At the same time I shall consider further the drafting that the hon. Lady has put before us without a commitment to further action but because I am genuinely sympathetic to the spirit of her approach.

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the Minister for those remarks and remind him that I began by saying that we wished to fetter to some degree the very wide discretion that he is giving to the president. In that sense he is correct in saying that the part of the amendment to which he referred is intended to be more restrictive.

When we debated the matter in Committee we heard that in an area with only small pockets of people dependent on supplementary benefit persons may serve on the committee who have not the smallest acquaintance with the problem of living on a low income.

I am concerned to hear it suggested that the people who serve on the panels may not receive primary material, but may be given filtered advice. I am sure that the Minister, who has been in office for a considerable period, will share my conviction that there is no substitute for primary material and seeing it for oneself. If the problem is of cost or administration, I hope that the Minister will ask the president to examine the matter carefully.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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