HC Deb 19 May 1986 vol 98 cc38-60


'(1) A social fund officer—

  1. (a) shall review a determination made under this Part of this Act by himself or some other social fund officer, if an application for a review is made to him within such time and in suet form and manner as may be prescribed by or on behalf of the person who applied for the social fund payment to which the determination relates; and
  2. (b) may review such a determination in such other circumstances as he thinks fit;

and may exercise on a review any power exercisable by an officer under section 33 above.

(2) The power to review a determination conferred on a social fund officer by subsection (1) above includes power to review a determination made by a social fund officer on a previous review.

(3) On an application made by or on behalf of the person to whom a determination relates within such time and in such form and manner as may be prescribed a determination of a social fund officer which has been reviewed shall be further reviewed by a social fund inspector, and the Secretary of State shall appoint officers to be so called for the purpose of conducting such reviews.

(4) On a review a social fund inspector shall have the following powers—

  1. (a) power to confirm the determination made by the social fund officer;
  2. (b) power to make any determination which a social fund officer could have made;
  3. (c) power to refer the matter to a social fund officer for determination.

(5) In determining a question on a review a social fund officer or social fund inspector shall have regard, subject to subsection (6) below, to all the circumstances of the case and, in particular, to the matters specified in section 33(9)(a) to (e) above.

(6) An officer or inspector shall determine any question on a review in accordance with any general directions issued by the Secretary of State under section 33(10) above and any general directions issued by him with regard to reviews and in determining any such question shall take account of any general guidance issued by him under that subsection or with regard to reviews.

(7) Directions under this section may specify—

  1. (a) the circumstances in which a determination is to be reviewed; and
  2. (b) the manner in which a review is to be conducted: — [Mr. Newton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Antony Newton)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following: Amendment (a) to the proposed new clause, in subsection 1(b) leave out such other circumstances as he thinks fit and insert "prescribed circumstances".

New clause 15—Appeal against social fund officers' determination—

  1. `(1) A claimant may appeal against any determination made by a social fund officer under this Part of this Act.
  2. (2) Any appeal under subsection (1) above shall be to a social security appeal tribunal under the procedure laid down in sections 100, 101 and 104 of the Social Security Act 1975 and section 15 of the Social Security Act 1980, and any reference to "adjudication officer" in those sections shall be construed as including reference to a social fund officer.
  3. (3) Section 33(12) of this Act shall only be operative insofar as any determinations made under that section comply with the procedure established in subsection (2) above.'.
New clause 16 — Appeals against housing benefit determination—
  1. `(1) A person who has claimed housing benefit may appeal against any determination of that claim.
  2. (2) Any appeal under subsection (1) above shall be to a social security appeal tribunal under the procedure laid down in sections 100, 101 and 104 of the Social Security Act 1975 and section 15 of the Social Security Act 1980, and any reference to "adjudication officer" in those sections shall be construed as including reference to the appropriate authority responsible for administering housing benefit under section 28 of this Act.
  3. (3) Section 29(3) of this Act shall only be operative insofar as any regulations made under that section comply with the procedure established in subsection (2) above.'.

New clause 27 — Determinations by Social Fund Officers (Appeals) —

  1. `(1) The Secretary of State shall make arrangements for appeals against determinations by Social Fund officers to be heard by inspectors acting as his deputies.
  2. (2) The recommendations of the inspectors (and the final decisions of the Secretary of State, if different) shall be communicated to the appellant in writing.
  3. (3) The Secretary of State shall present to Parliament an annual report on the operation of the Social Fund and the appeals procedure.'.

(5)Amendment No. 155, in clause 33, page 40, line 37, after 'shall', insert 'in the last instance'.

No. 156, in page 40, line 38, at end insert `(2A) Sections 100, 101 and 104 of the Social Security Act 1975 relating to a claimant's rights of appeal shall apply to decisions taken by the Social Fund Officers.'. No. 158, in clause 49, page 55, line 7, at end insert— '(9) Regulations shall provide for a claimant or applicant to have a right of appeal to a social security appeal tribunal constituted under the Social Security Act 1975 against

  1. (a) any determination or direction (including a determination to refuse to review a determination or direction) of a social fund officer under section 33 of this Act.
  2. 40
  3. (b) any determination of a local authority (including a determination to refuse to review a determination) relating to housing benefit.'.

Government Amendment No. 162.

Amendment No. 80, in clause 33, page 42, line 3, at end add 'but shall in all cases provide for an appeal to a person independent from the Social Fund Officer who made or refused the award in question'.

4.30 pm
Mr. Newton

The new clause deals with the important subject of the review of social fund decisions. It was extensively debated in Committee. It seeks to make a response to the debate in Committee along the lines of my comments in Committee, and taking into account the views of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.

It might be sensible if I started by outlining formally the provisions of the new clause. It provides for review by a social fund officer of determinations made under clause 33, either on application or on behalf of the person to whom the determination relates, or when he feels that the circumstances justify that. The clause provides that there can be a further review—this point specifically reflects the anxieties expressed in Committee—by a social fund inspector. It sets out the powers of the social fund inspector and provides that a social fund officer or inspector shall be subject to the directions and guidance issued by the Secretary of State.

Subsection (1) provides that a social fund officer shall review a determination of an application in the prescribed manner and time by, or on behalf of, the person to whom the determination relates. He can also review a determination if the circumstances justify that. The subsection also provides that when reviewing a case the social fund officer continues to exercise his usual powers under clause 33.

With regard to the use of the regulation-making power, it is intended that, as the regulations provide for adjudication of weekly social security benefits, the regulations will set out time limits within which an application may be made, and details such as the application being made in writing.

Subsection (2) provides that the ability to review a determination applies also to one that has already been reviewed. Subsection (3) provides that when a determination has been reviewed by a social fund officer, if a further application is made within the prescribed manner and time, it will be further reviewed by a social fund inspector. These inspectors will be appointed under the subsection. The use of the regulation-making powers will be in line with that which I have already described under subsection (1).

Subsection (4) describes the powers of a social fund inspector. These state that he can confirm the determination, make a determination which a social fund officer might have made, or refer the matter to a social fund officer to determine. Subsection (5) provides that, subject to the following subsection, social fund officers and inspectors, when reviewing a determination, shall have regard to all the circumstances of a case and specifically to the matters referred to in subsection (9) of clause 33.

Subsection (6) provides that social fund officers and inspectors shall be subject to general directions and guidance issued by the Secretary of State under subsection (10) of clause 33. These can include specific guidance and directions on reviews. Subsection (7) provides that the Secretary of State can issue directions on the circumstances in which cases are to be reviewed and on the procedures of review.

In an attempt to save time, I should like briefly to refer to Government amendment No. 162, which is part of the group of amendments that we are discussing. The amendment seeks out to leave out subsection (12) of clause 33. It is consequential on the proposition of the new clause and leaves out from clause 33 the previous provision which enables the Secretary of State to issue directions on the procedure as to how a review shall be conducted. That provision has been overtaken by the tabling of the extensive new clause.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will the Minister tell the House where the social fund officer will be based? Will he be based in the office where the original decision was made, or will that have been taken at regional level? Will the Minister also say where the inspectors will be based? However inadequate the Opposition consider the review to be, what rights will the person making the appeal—if it can he described as such—possess? Will he be able to appear in person before the social fund officer, or will he be represented?

Mr. Newton

I shall come to some of the points which the hon. Gentleman has raised in my description of the provisions of the proposed new clause.

Before technically describing the clause, I said at the outset that the procedure under which a person unhappy with the decision of a social fund officer can seek a review was the subject of considerable discussion in Committee. I shall not rehearse now the arguments that were expressed in Committee on that subject, although I accept that I may need to do that as the debate progresses. The arguments in Committee led us to the conclusion that the adjudication machinery appropriate to a regulated system of benefit, and specifically appropriate to the regulated system of weekly rates of benefit, was not appropriate for the essentially discretionary decision-making machinery that we have proposed for the social fund.

It has always been our intention—I hope that this was clear in Committee—that there should be clear and proper rights for those who felt that the decision by a social fund officer in respect of possible payments by way of grant or loan under the social fund was wrong to have that decision properly reviewed and re-examined. One clearly significant point which gives greater emphasis to that in the new clause is that the clause confirms a clear statutory right for the claimant to require the social fund officer to review the decision if application is made. We would intend to set out in regulations the procedures for that right to be exercised.

We have considered the fact that the procedure for review must reflect the specific nature of the social fund and the fact that it is not based on a set of regulations. We believe that the review procedures should be within the same general framework as the fund and operate consistently with the way in which the original decision was taken. We therefore suggest that the logical procedure for review—this covers one of the points raised by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) —should initially be at the local office level at which the original decision was taken. This has the advantage, which is part of the advantage that we see for the social fund mechanism as a whole, that the review will he close to the point of the decision and the person undertaking the review will himself or herself be aware of the local circumstances and the considerations affecting the social fund in the office where the decision was taken. There will therefore be a greater chance of a quick and flexible response.

Under the new clause we propose that the review at the local level should still be the first mechanism for the review of decisions. As I said in Committee, at greater length than I intend to repeat this afternoon, that will do no more than build on the procedure that already exists in relation to nearly all social security decisions. If a query is raised, the first step is normally for the person who took the decision or someone senior to that person in the local office, or possibly both these people, to take a further look at that decision. In other words, when an appeal is lodged within the system, the first step is that the decision is re-examined.

In the case of single payments, under the present system twice as many appeals have their decisions revised at that stage without ever reaching the formal appeal machinery. They are reviewed when the appeal comes in. Twice as many decisions are revised at that stage as are successful if they go on to be heard by an appeal tribunal. In practice, many decisions are reviewed as a result of an appeal being entered and never go to appeal. We would envisage that that would be part and parcel of the process. There should be an initial review at the same level as is the case for social security decisions.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

If, at the end of a financial year, when the fund is perhaps almost exhausted, will there be any danger that an officer will be reviewing cases with one eye over his shoulder, so to speak, to see whether there is any money in the kitty?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend raises a legitimate point, but it concerns the different and somewhat wider question of the budgeting arrangements. We have made it clear that in drawing up the budget proposals for the social fund our aim, particularly in the early stages, will be to proceed with flexibility. We expect to have arrangements for reserves at various levels rather than a completely rigid allocation down to every level of the system ab initio. It is to that point, rather than to the reviews, that my hon. Friend's remarks are directed. I acknowledge the importance of the point that she raised, but it is slightly aside from the review process that we are specifically discussing.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

I take the Minister's point about the number of cases that are reviewed before the rates tribunal; but does he accept that. by and large, such reviews are carried out as a result of representations made by outside agencies — such as citizens advice bureaux, politicians who are doing their job properly or trade unions—and that such an independent element will not be involved if the new clause is agreed to?

Mr. Newton

I am not absolutely sure that I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I accept that questions about social security benefit decisions are raised by a variety of people. Sometimes they are raised by the claimants themselves, sometimes by the claimants with advice from a wide variety of people, and sometimes by others on behalf of the claimant—be it citizens advice bureaux, Members of Parliament, local councillors or a variety of others, including social workers, probation officers and so on who, in one way or another, come into contact with the claimant.

There is no suggestion that timplow system will be different in that respect. It will still be open to a wide variety of people to raise questions about a decision, and in our expectation the response of the local office will be precisely the same as under the present system. In other words, if questions are raised, the first stage is to take another look at the decision that has been made.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, if a request for review is unsuccessful, the applicant will get a written report explaining why the application was not successful? If such an applicant took his case to a Member of Parliament, who then took it to a Minister, would that Minister agree to review it at that stage?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend brings me to the next points that I wish to raise. I have described what normally happens in social security decision-making and the extent to which decisions are reviewed as a result of an application to appeal. That is an important part of understanding the problem that we face as well as the working of the system.

I was about to say that we have listened carefully to the arguments that have been put during the continuing consultation since the publication of the White Paper and the Bill. Not least, we listened to what was said by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee about the fact that, alongside the process of review—including formal review by a senior officer within the local office—there had to be some clearly established machinery that was separate from and outside the normal management chain of the administration of the social security system. In other words, it was argued that, whether or not the process of review within a local office was satisfactory, there should be a more clearly distinct mechanism for review to provide the kind of confidence that hon. Members felt was necessary to show that an element of independence was being applied.

As I said in Committee, we were impressed by the constructive way in which a number of hon. Members on both sides—not least my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley) and others—tabled an amendment calling for the establishment of a group of social fund inspectors who would be independent of ordinary line management, in order to bring this additional element of independence to the review of social fund decisions.

4.45 pm

Essentially that is what we have sought to provide in the new clause. We have provided for a further review by this body of social fund inspectors. They will be officials of the Department, and the new clause provides for their appointment — [Interruption.] Perhaps hon. Members will allow me to continue, as it may be more sensible if they make their speeches, so that I can reply to them more systematically at a later stage.

These officers will be officials of the Department, and the new clause provides for their appointment by the Secretary of State. They will not be attached to one local office, nor will they operate within the management chain. They will therefore provide a check that is precisely related to the concern that was expressed in Committee —that a revised confined to local office level would be thought to be, even it were not the case, merely the local office manager confirming the decision taken earlier by his own staff.

Like the social fund officers, the inspectors will also be subject to the directions and guidance of the Secretary of State and will need to pay regard to the same kind of criteria as the social fund officers. I am sure that my hon. Friends will at least agree that that is the only way in which this will make sense, given the nature of the fund, which is not a regulated system which is appropriate to the normal form of adjudication mechanism.

The House will also note that an inspector is given three powers. First, he can confirm the decision. Secondly, he can refer the case back to the social fund officer for him to redetermine. For example, that procedure will be followed where the inspector feels that on the evidence before him he cannot endorse the decision, but is not in a position to make a final determination on the case. Thirdly—this is essential to avoid the possible yo-yo effect if the only power were to refer the decision back —he can also determine a case in the same way as a social fund officer. The inspector's decision would then be substituted for the disputed decision.

I am anxious to keep my remarks brief, because I recognise that hon. Members will wish to raise a number of points. I hope the House will recognise that the new clause provides the kind of procedure that was urged in Committee, especially by some of my hon. Friends. It goes considerably beyond what was in the Bill in the first place, and that is right. It provides a statutory right to request a review, and a further review if it is felt that the first review is still unsatisfactory. Most important of all, it creates a new tier of reviewing such decisions that is outside the local office and the normal social security management chain. It is a significant and important response to the concerns that have been expressed, and I commend it to the House.

Mrs. Beckett

The Minister has given a whole range of reasons for the proposals in new clause 30 — all except the one that most hon. Members who served in Committee believed to be the real reason. In a sense the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) put her finger on the point when she asked about cash limits.

Many aspects of the social fund have caused widespread anxiety both inside and outside the House. They include the facts that it is discretionary and that it may provide loans rather than grants, and the size of its budget. However, the two aspects which have caused most anxiety and which are inextricably linked are the twin issues of cash limits and the way in which appeals against decisions made under the social fund will be considered. They are inextricably interlinked because the more we listened and studied the arguments in Committee, the more the essential problem seemed to be that, if the Government conceded a right of independent appeal, each case must perforce be considered by those who serve on the independent appeal body on its merits and as a request for help, and the cash limits, which are so crucial to the Government's proposals and so much a part of what they seek to do, could not bite.

The Government have introduced this compromise proposal to give the impression of more independence— at least the matter is not confined solely to a local office —but without there being a right of true independence through a judgment being made outside the' local office and the Department within which the decision has been made. The sum left in the fund and the time of year will be crucial. In Committee, the Minister argued that one of the advantages of the social fund was its local nature, so there was no need for an independent right of appeal. He has now conceded that it would be seen to be unjust if the fund were maintained purely at a local level, but he is not prepared to concede a fully independent appeal procedure, because that would breach the principle of cash limits.

We are extremely worried about the scope and implications of the proposal, and therefore about the appeal procedure which will be applied. People—for example, refugees—often need help urgently. The death grant and maternity grant will be dealt with under the social fund, although they will not be subject to cash limits in the same way,. At present all those areas of decision-making carry the right of appeal to an independent tribunal.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) asked how people could appeal to their Member of Parliament, as they do now, and obtain some sort of review or appeal procedure in that way. That will not apply in the same way because the Secretary of State will not be involved in the decisions and will not be able to overturn them. The local office, which will be at the root of decision-making, will be blamed and will carry the responsibility. As a cosmetic gesture, the Government are introducing a system of inspectors.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) pressed the Minister to say exactly how local the appeal procedure would be, the Minister's answer was not particularly clear. I think that the person who reviews the case will not be in the local office, so there will be some opportunity for the case to be reviewed by someone who is not necessarily in the immediate vicinity. However, the case will not be reviewed by anyone who has any considerations in mind other than the Department's guidelines and interests. That person will be a civil servant with an innate tendency to back his colleagues who made the decision, and not someone outside.

The right of appeal which is being withdrawn has existed for more than 50 years, as the Government have been reminded more than once, but not too often. This is a major withdrawal of a civil and legal right. It has been said that under the present procedures some reviews and appeals succeed prior to an appeal hearing before a tribunal. In Committee, the Minister conceded, as he has today in effect conceded, that many cases which succeed before the appeal comes to a hearing do so because the officer involved knows that it will go to a tribunal. Therefore, he takes a further look at the case, because naturally, he does not wish to lose the case before a tribunal. In 1984, some 19,000 cases were successfully reviewed in that way.

If there is no right to an independent tribunal beyond the initial decision, that pressure will be substantially reduced, if not removed altogether. Some 8,000 cases were overturned by tribunals, which is a success rate of between 20 and 25 per cent. The new clause means that the possibility of an independent review will be lost, and that 8,000 people will more than likely not have their decision beneficially reviewed and overturned.

The Government's comments and justifications for trying to abolish the right of appeal have been interesting, but weak. In the Green Paper they suggested: The present appeal arrangements … can have a sledgehammer effect. The full weight of legal consideration can be brought to bear on matters which may involve small sums. What are small sums to those in well-paid work can be crucial to individual claimants, especially the long-term unemployed whose income is already below the poverty line. The fact that they are small sums in general terms and in the scope of the Government's Budget does not mean that they are not desperately important to the individuals who make claims and have them reviewed.

In the White Paper the Government said: The decisions which turn on whether or not it is reasonable to give or deny help in a particular case lend themselves far less readily to a separate external assessment than do matters which turn on more specific criteria. The existing social security appeal tribunals already deal with such matters and must interpret words, such as "reasonable", which occur frequently in social security regulations. The Government sought to argue that independent appeals were not feasible because the decisions would be discretionary.

The Council on Tribunals, which is the expert body on these proposals, has made it absolutely clear that it does not accept almost any aspect—not a jot or tittle—of the Government's argument. Some months ago, after much consultation with the Secretary of State, it took the exceptional step of publishing a strong report, criticizing the way in which the Government intended to proceed. It states: It is perfectly feasible to have independent appeals against discretionary decisions, as is shown by the system which operated before 1980 and by other appeal systems. In some ways it is even more important with discretionary decisions. We wholeheartedly endorse that point of view.

Through amendment (a) we have sought to make a minor change in the Government's proposals. In Committee, we asked for the power to overturn decisions to be granted to whatever review system may exist. We asked for it to be made plain that if an independent right of appeal existed and the Government proposed to introduce a social fund inspectorate, the inspector would have the power to overturn the initial decision. That is contained in the new clause, but, as the new clause is drafted far too wide, it will allow the withdrawal of an award which had already been made for any reason, good or bad.

As the new clause is drafted, there is no scope for any restriction to be placed on the nature of the decision to overturn, or on the reasons for it to be taken. For that reason we propose amendment (a) to new clause 30, which allows, for example, for the grounds on which a decision might be overturned to be prescribed and, indeed, prevents the withdrawal of a payment, if an unfavourable decision should be made. Otherwise, an applicant could not rely on an award that had been made.

The main point of criticism remains unsatisfied by the new clause. The review procedure being devised will not be independent and will be seen not to be independent.

Control is what matters most to the Government—in particular, control of cash limits. Neither Ministers nor an independent authority will have the right to overturn this decision. The cash limits will prevail. I quote again from the words of the Council on Tribunals: The people most affected by this proposal are among the most vulnerable in society. Very good reasons are needed before abolition of the right to an independent appeal in such circumstances … It is for these reasons that we are so critical of the proposal"— which is highly retrograde. The council urged that this proposal should be reconsidered, and the right of independent appeal retained. We urged this in Committee and we continue to urge it in the House.

5 pm

Mr. Roy Galley (Halifax)

New clause 30 is greatly to be welcomed and my hon. Friend the Minister has responded flexibly and sensibly to the strong volume and quality of arguments put to him in Committee. He has accepted the essential point that we were trying to press upon him. The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) was less than gracious in her response to this concession.

Some of the points of concern that I raised in Committee are not dealt with by the new clause. Nevertheless, the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister have overcome some of my concerns and anxieties. It would have been preferable to put some other provisions in the new clause and on the face of the Bill; I hope that in any regulations made under the new clause my hon. Friend will be able to go a little further than he has done today to bolster confidence in the new appeal system. His intentions are in the right direction and his heart is in the right place.

My hon. Friend has not quite accepted the principle that the appeal shall be to the Secretary of State, with the social fund inspectors acting as deputies of the Secretary of State, which would make them at one more remove from the management structure than the new clause suggests. I agree that my hon. Friend has accepted that the social fund inspectors shall be, in large measure, independent of the local and regional management structure, and that is vital. It would have been preferable to have a system more akin to town and country planning, where there is an appeal with an independent inspector, employed by the Secretary of State, but nevertheless independent of him, against a local decision.

New clause 30 goes a long way to meet that system, but not as far as new clause 27, which would have given greater confidence to appellants and those involved in appealing against social fund decisions, in the quality of the decisions that were made. It would have eased some of the enormous responsibility that social fund officers will have to shoulder as a result of the powers being given to them by Parliament under the Bill.

I hope that it will be possible, as the appeals system develops, for my hon. Friend to introduce regulations to provide that decisions will be in writing, with the reasons for them fully set out. I hope also that it will be possible for appellants to obtain a hearing, with a friend or representative accompanying them if they so wish, and for the social fund officer to defend his decision at the hearing.

I understand why my hon. Friend does not wish to have the whole panoply of a tribunal system, and perhaps by this openness we may be moving towards such a position. However, it would give more confidence if there were the ability to challenge decisions and to hear the arguments of those most intimately connected with the proceedings when the appeal decision was being made. The rights of the appellant are not clearly set out in the new clause, and I hope that as the system evolves those rights will become more clear.

It is suggested that there should be established an annual report to Parliament on the operation of both the social fund and the appeal procedure, so that again there is openness and confidence in the way that the system is handled. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may be prepared to do this on a voluntary basis without it being written on the face of the Bill, but it would be useful, if no more, to have a report to the House setting out how many applications and appeals there have been, what responses there have been, and how decisions were reached. Although it is not immediately germane to the new clause, there would be more confidence in the expenditure and cash-limiting elements to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) referred. We need to know in monetary terms how the fund is working and whether the system of back-up resources is being handled appropriately by the Department.

I welcome the new clause, but I hope that it will be possible, under the regulations, for my hon. Friend to go a little further to bolster confidence in the appeals system, which we welcome.

Mr. Kirkwood

It would be churlish not to recognise that the Government have made some movement in the direction of the sentiments expressed in Committee, where debates were both useful and constructive. However, I am sorry to have to tell the Minister that if the clause is pushed to a Division, I shall vote against it. The system is still not adequate.

First, the need for an independent system in the review process has not been displaced by the proposals. Claimants need an environment for telling their story which is entirely separate from the DHSS, which takes the initial decision. I can tell a short story from my practical experience to show why that should be so. I used to be an honorary advisor to the citizens advice bureau in Hawick and we had a good young volunteer counsellor who was a conscientious DHSS officer. By chance, one day a claimant came into the CAB straight from the DHSS, steam coming out of his ears because of the treatment that he had had under the system. He ran into the young CAB counsellor who was the same person who had seen him in the DHSS office. The discussion in the CAB was full of sweetness and light, and the claimant was helped considerably because he was out of the context of the DHSS and being given advice from the CAB. The Government system will allow no circumstances where such things can happen.

Will the review process whereby a social fund inspector refers back a decision, to be reviewed again, be published and made available to advisors, claimants and others? It is essential that that should take place, to try to build up a picture of how the review procedure that has been announced in new clause 30 is working.

Secondly, I have severe worries, based on the experience of the special case officers since 1980. This small highly trained cadre of DHSS officials has been under tremendous pressure. If the Minister expects the social fund inspector that he is creating, through new clause 30, to function under that pressure, the social fund review process will fall apart at the seams. How many inspectors does the Minister consider will be needed to operate new clause 30? How much time will they have, and what training can they expect to receive?

On the principle of the need for an appeal, the nature and quality of the decisions taken by inspectors is vital. The Green Paper advanced three main reasons against an independent system: first, that it was basically inappropriate; secondly, that it was a sledgehammer approach; and, thirdly, that it would involve inordinate delay. Those reasons were all discredited in Committee.

An independent review is essential for four reasons: first, it considers the substance of the matter and the decision taken; secondly, it reviews the facts—a very important process—on which the initial decision was based; thirdly, it produces an element of quality control and introduces some consistency and a cross-check on decisions taken by social fund officers; and, fourthly, and most important, it offers the applicants or claimants a review that will take the heat out of the matter.

I accept that a management review might be able to deal with the first three essential features, but I underline the fact that the prospect of an applicant or a claimant being told that if he does not like the decision he can take it to an independent appeal process would defuse any problems. That has been my experience in many cases.

The Green Paper's claim that an independent review is inappropriate is wrong. There is an element of discretion in the system. Words such as "reasonable", "appropriate" and "thinks fit" abound in some single payment regulations, and at present the adjudication officers must pick their way through the regulations using their discretion against the background of the guidance, the statutory instruments and the policy statements issued from head office. A move to discretion is nothing like enough justification for removing such cases from the tribunal system.

As the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) said on the sledgehammer argument, the sums of money involved may not be large in arithmetical terms, but there are broader social and political objectives in the set-up which an independent tribunal and appeal process creates. The sledgehammer argument is not conclusive for that reason.

The delay argument is also weak, if not irrelevant. The social security appeal tribunals do not produce unreasonable delays. If there are any delays in the tribunals, recent research shows that they are caused in the DHSS offices and are not the fault of the independent appeal tribunals. More recent research shows that similar delays occur where appeals are disposed of administratively. There are delays when administrative proceedings take place to review decisions. Those delays will be made considerably worse if not enough social fund officers and inspectors are made available to conduct the in-house reviews.

Tribunals can take decisions in principle to be implemented if resources are available. The Government could easily have taken that option. They should have left the independent appeal procedure in place. I accept that a major anxiety in the Minister of State's mind, if not in his mouth, is the money restraint, but the Government could have adopted the suggestion that I have just made.

The Minister will need stronger arguments before he can persuade me that new clause 30 is supportable. The hon. Member for Derby, South mentioned the persuasive arguments of the Council on Tribunals.

Will the Minister consider new clause 16, which relates to the housing benefit appeal process? We discussed the possibility of the Government's bringing housing benefit into the independent appeal process. Will the Minister say something about that?

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

When I read the Bill for the first time, I was worried that there appeared to be no form of appeal in such cases. When I met deputations on the subject, I understood the worries which were affecting people. I read the standing Committee reports and found a wide divergence of view, not so much about whether there should be an appeal, but about the nature of the appeal that should be inserted in the Bill. I tabled amendment No. 80 to try to get an appeal independent of the originator of a decision.

5.15 pm

I observed that the Association of Metropolitan Authorities briefing said that my amendment should be regarded with caution. I am grateful that the AMA should think it worthy of comment. The association could have telephoned me, as a previous deputy chairman of the Association of Municipal Corporations, but it chose not to do so.

Like the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), I have read the special report from the Council on Tribunals, but I have also read the council's annual reports. Hardly a report goes by without the council criticising some aspect of Government policy that impinges upon its work. The only difference on this occasion is that it has taken the trouble to issue a special report. It is not the first time that it has cri6cised Governments of all colours during the past 15 years, so I do not place as much credence upon its remarks as the hon. Lady did.

I tabled the amendment in that form because of my experience when working as a Housing Minister on the right-to-buy legislation, which provided for an appeal against the district valuer's determination. That appeal was to be to another member of the staff of the district valuer. During the four years that the legislation has been in place, I know of no complaint that the reviewing district valuer merely followed the advice of his colleague. As a former DHSS Minister, I consider it rotten of Opposition Members to say that DHSS officials would whitewash the decision of a colleague just because they come from the same Department. That may be how Transport House works; it is not the way in which the DHSS works. It has a large body of loyal, dedicated officials who are determined to do a good job and not just rubber-stamp the views of their colleagues.

Having said that, I can appreciate the Minister's difficulty. I examined with as much care and understanding as I could the somewhat complex new clause that he has tabled to try to understand exactly what he means and to see whether it goes some way towards providing the second view of a case for which so many people have asked.

The deputations that I have met wanted a proper second look at cases. If the Minister is not prepared to have a wholly independent review, with all the accompanying paraphernalia of setting up a new panel completely separately staffed, which might become cumbersome and bureaucratic, he has found an acceptable compromise. It is not the best by any means, but it is acceptable. Provided that hon. Members do not denigrate DHSS staff who are asked to review the working of the social fund, and say that they will not be independent, I believe that my right hon. Friend has found a way through the difficulty which will satisfy most people.

Reference has been made to an annual report and to the figures that might be made available. Legislation is on the statute book that covers a wide variety of DHSS subjects. If, after a year or so, it were found that the new clause was not providing adequately for a proper review, there would be plenty of opportunity to change it. We ought to go along the road that my right hon. Friend has suggested. Therefore, I do not intend to press amendment No. 80. I shall support the new clause.

Mr. Mallon

This is the first time that I have had the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Therefore, I am tempted to say everything that I should like to say about it, but I shall resist the temptation and will try to deal only with the way in which it will affect Northern Ireland. Circumstances are different in Northern Ireland; 26 per cent. of all household incomes there are derived from social security payments. In my constituency, 25 per cent. of the people are unemployed. Single payments in Northern Ireland amount to £25.5 million. In my constituency alone they account for £2.5 million. I shall consider the implications of the new clause against that background.

I am worried most of all about the lack of an independent review. That is very' difficult to accept. I spent many years dealing with social security problems and found that the person who is properly represented at a tribunal has a much better chance of succeeding than the person who is not properly represented. That is a proven fact. It is also a proven fact that the person who receives good advice is much more likely to succeed. We deserve an answer to the question: at what stage will an independent input be available? At what stage will it be possible to avail oneself of the expertise that is available from citizens advice bureaux, trade unions, interested politicians and various other sources?

I pay tribute to the managers of Northern Ireland's social security offices for the way in which they have administered the single payments. However, it is interesting to note that when people applied for single payments and sought political assistance to obtain them, it was found in a large number of cases that another type of social security payment was available to them but that they were not claiming it. The benefit of the independent input and review will be lost in the implementation of the discretionary loan system or social fund system.

This is a crucial factor. We should not consider only how it will operate in the case of those who make a claim. We have to consider the implications for those who do not make a claim. There is a new type of need in our society. I call it the "lace curtain poor". Those who have tremendous pride and who have never had to go to a social security office will not like the discretionary system. Therefore, they will not ask for a loan or for charity from that system.

The begging stigma is to be introduced into a statutory entitlement. For that reason, many people who are entitled to assistance, and who receive it if they obtain help from an independent source, will not receive it if the independent source no longer exists. Therefore, we must remove the begging stigma from the term "social fund", or "discretionary loan system", or whatever name is eventually accepted by the public at large.

The absence of an independent tribunal is a grave mistake. Area boards have been created in Northern Ireland. By and large, they do a very good job. They administer efficiently social security, education and various other aspects. If, however, the Minister says that no appeal can be made to him because a "crunch" problem is a matter for the area board, the individual will have no ultimate arbiter. The area board will take the decision. There will be no ultimate arbiter and no ultimate right of appeal to a tribunal. The independent element will no longer exist.

Something has happened already in Northern Ireland which I do not like. There has been an increase in the number of applications for licences to lend money. I repeat that I live in an area where a great many people depend upon social security payments. The new clause will encourage the loan sharks in Northern Ireland. The absence of an independent tribunal will edge many people towards asking for a loan from the independent loan merchants rather than from the social fund.

I see that right hon. and hon. Members are shaking their heads. However, very many people, especially those who have never asked for social security because their pride will not allow them to do so, are getting into the hands of the loan sharks. That will happen increasingly because of this one element in the Bill. I discussed this matter early today with someone whose views I do not fully share. However, he made a very apt remark. He said, "It is the difference between being mugged and having your pockets picked." I hope that we shall be able to avoid both.

Mr. Stern

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate on this new clause. I shall be brief. Many of the hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee had an opportunity to contribute to the debate that gave rise to new clause 30. Therefore, we are grateful for the opportunity to hear the comments of other hon. Members — for example, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). I appreciated his comments about loan sharks, but he was a little unfair to the Government in suggesting that the Bill would contribute to the increase in their numbers. The Bill is at least a year and a half away from implementation. Nevertheless, that is important in areas where there is a high level of dependence on social security, and it is something that we shall have to look at closely in the regulation of the Bill because it is an ever-present danger.

5.30 pm

I welcome new clause 30 because it follows from an undertaking given by my hon. Friend the Minister in Committee and it meets my objections to the clause as originally drafted. The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) dealt briefly with the fact that the clause, unlike formal appeal systems, recognises one essential fact of the social fund system. A decision by a social fund commissioner or a decision on a review by an inspector or other official will not be based on a fixed view of the facts, or even on a correction of a view of the facts, but will be an expression of opinion.

I was accused by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who, unfortunately, is not in his seat, of metaphysics when I raised that matter in Committee. Any decision based on opinion is just as good as and no better than anyone else's. The fact that we are setting up a review system rather than an appeal system recognises that at the end of the day we shall merely be substituting one opinion for another—or not, as the case may be—rather than attempting to apply precedent or a finer view of the facts than those that were applied to the original decision.

I welcome the new clause because it is a full and fair recognition of the fact that an appeal system would be inappropriate for a social fund, and at the same time it gives the maximum opportunity for the factors put forward by the claimant to be taken into account. Throughout our legal system that distinction between a fresh look at the facts and a fresh look at the law relating to those facts is applied. It is in the High Court where the jury sits that the facts are finally decided. The whole purpose of the appeal system, as I understand it—I am not a lawyer—is to look at the way in which the law is applied to those facts rather than to take a fresh look at the facts. That is the system that we have at the moment in social security. We are replacing that with an opportunity to look again not at the law but at the facts.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to clarify one point which, again, follows from a point made in Committee. It has been generally welcomed that the inspector will be independent of the social fund officer whose decision is being reviewed. But one question that was left open in Committee, to which I ask my hon. Friend to return, is how far, within the social security network, the inspector will be removed from the social fund officer who took the original decision. For example, I see every advantage in an expert on housing benefits in Newcastle being called in to review a social fund decision in Cornwall and vice versa.

The one point that worries me about an internal review system is the extent to which the ethos and methods of operation of a particular local social fund and its officers will carry over into the review decisions made by the inspectors. We need to use the breadth of the facilities of the DHSS, which, after all, is the largest spending Government Department, to make sure that the inspector's remit in any decision on the social fund is as far removed from that of the social fund officer as possible. Indeed, I hope that in the administration of new clause 30 there will be a positive instruction to social security officers that they should not bring in as an inspector on a particular social fund anyone who has any other connections with that social fund or, indeed, the area.

Subject to that, I welcome the new clause. In introducing the new clause my hon. Friend has shown himself to be responsive to the worries that were expressed about the original clause and he has produced a system which will meet those worries.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

New clause 30 must be seen against the background of the social fund and the proposals which, as we know, give a great deal of discretion to the local DHSS office, the cash-limited social fund and, in many cases, the loans which are replacing the present practice. Understandably, we consider the social fund itself to be an onslaught on the poorest section of our community. That point has been made time and time again by Labour Members.

The new clause in no way deals adequately with the need for an independent appeal. The social fund officer is bound to be seen as part of an administration within the local office. In reply to an intervention of mine, the Minister said that the social fund officer would be based in that office. Clearly, he or she will be seen as part of the normal administration. Therefore, the refusal will come from the local office and a decision to turn down a claimant's appeal will come from the same office. In the eyes of the claimant there will be no distinction.

Mr. Newton

There may simply be a semantic confusion here. The social fund officer is the name given in the new system for what is the adjudication officer in the existing system and, by definition, in the local office. There is no change, other than a change of nomenclature. However, the inspector would not be in the local office.

Mr. Winnick

I take that point, but the first stage will clearly be to someone based in the local office.

The new clause, it should be remembered, has been put forward only after repeated criticisms. The Government did not intend to do anything of the kind. However, they now recognise that the original provision was totally inadequate.

I repeat my earlier question. Will the claimant whose application for assistance has been turned down be able to see the social fund officer, or will there be only written communications? If the claimant can be seen, can he take along someone to represent himself? That is important.

The social fund inspector is also part of the DHSS machinery. The Minister has just told us that the social fund inspector will not be based in the local office, but that is no substitute for an independent appeal. To use the old cliché which nevertheless remains true, justice not only needs to be done but needs to be seen to be done. Those whose review is turned down by a social fund inspector will only come to the conclusion that there has been no independent review of the claim, merely one by the regional machinery of the DHSS.

I stress that we are dealing with matters of tremendous concern to many claimants. Hardly a single week goes by when I do not receive letters from constituents on supplementary benefit who require assistance on essential items such as furniture, bedding and clothes. Those are matters of crucial importance to such people. We can debate what the Minister has referred to as a matter of semantics, whether it is a social fund officer or otherwise, but this is a matter which concerns the poorest in our community. They do not want to be in that state. Many are forced to apply for essentials because they are unemployed and, like those in my part of the world, have no opportunity of getting a job.

If a claim is turned down there should be every opportunity for that claim to be looked at properly, and for that to be done there needs to be—as there is now— proper independent machinery to assess whether the refusal was justified. Like my hon. Friends, I believe that what is proposed is in no way an adequate substitute for what has hitherto been a form of independent machinery.

Many of our fellow citizens are now forced to live in widespread poverty. That should be a cause of great anxiety to us all, although I wonder whether it is of much concern to Government Members, including the Front Bench. Who would have thought just a few years ago that so many people with no other means of support would have had to apply for single payments for furniture and clothing and the like? It is an indictment of Government policies that in the last seven years many more people have been forced to live in those circumstances than was previously the case.

All that the Opposition can do is to spotlight the difficulties faced by many of our constituents and also to press as now for a system under which there is a reasonable chance for the people who need such help to receive it. If a claim is turned down the claimant must be able to appeal in a proper way. I agree with my hon. Friends that new clause 30 is no substitute for that which we have been seeking, and there is every reason to reject it.

Mr. Lewis Stevens (Nuneaton)

I should like to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for introducing new clause 30 and for moving a long way towards the point made on the Government side of the Committee about some form of review over and above that of local officers. The new clause moves a long way towards that, but perhaps not quite as far as some of us had anticipated. It is important, as the clause lays down, that the social security inspector carrying out the second stage of a review should be seen as quite divorced from the local office and should be accepted as someone distinctly outside the normal DHSS claims machinery. That meets most of the worry that we had. It is important that someone who is a specialist within those functions related to the social fund can make decisions quite independently of the local office. That will give considerable confidence to those people who had, as they thought, a just claim that had been turned down at some stage of the procedure.

It is important to consider for the future the point made by other hon. Members about the representation of people during the various stages of the initial application. Many people need some sort of support, either formal support from a legal representative or from an organisation or even in some cases merely from members of the family. That needs to be spelt out in the regulations that will eventually appear, because we need to know exactly who can help these people and can meet the inspector, the Secretary of State or the social fund review officer. I hope that will become part of the procedure for looking at these cases. It is not quite fair for some members of the Opposition to dismiss an inspector by saying that because he would be an employee of the DHSS he could not look properly at cases. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said he was anxious that cases should be looked at properly.

Mr. Winnick


Mr. Stevens

The hon. Member said properly, and it can be done quite properly within the scheme suggested by the Minister in the new clause. An officer who is dealing with cases time and again and looking at the social fund and becoming an expert on it, can look properly at a specific case and make a decision which is fully in the interests of the people concerned. It will not be a biased decision, as has been suggested, made purely in the interests of the Department. To suggest that is a slight upon the DHSS officials. It is not right to suggest that they do not exercise care and attention.

Mr. Winnick

In no way could my remarks be seen as a criticism of DHSS officials. My criticism was of Government policies and was not intended as a slight to those who are forced to carry out Government policies. If the hon. Member is keen to see that everything should be looked at properly perhaps he could explain why he is not in favour of an independent review.

Mr. Stevens

Perhaps I cannot explain that fully, but the assumption that all tribunals, because they have some independent magic about them, necessarily perform the task in every case successfully and better than an employed officer is false. Many tribunals do not work as satisfactorily as they should. There have been cases where there was as much criticism after the result of a tribunal as there was of any decision made in the courts.

5.45 pm

Within the scheme that the Minister has suggested, there is the possibility that we could have a slicker operation than has been seen in many tribunals. The tribunal system does not always work and tribunals can become routine in the way they deal with cases just as individuals can become routine in making judgments. Tribunals do not have the magic that has been suggested — that merely because they are independent they are always successful.

When the scheme is working I hope that the Minister will look carefully at the possibility of the advertising that needs to be carried out about exactly what the procedures are. Such advertising is needed both for claimants and for officials in the Department. Despite a lot of work, the DHSS still suffers from a lack of understanding about how to set about various procedures. We are debating a new and extensive Bill, and I hope that the rules about the social fund and the reviews of appeals by claimants against decisions will be made simple and clear for the claimants and for the Department so that the scheme can be operated successfully. As I said before, the clause does not go quite as far as some of us had hoped, but I thank the Minister for moving towards what we were seeking in terms of a review outside the Department's local office area. New clause 30 meets that point and perhaps with care and a careful look at the procedures we will have a system that is satisfactory and helpful. It must be helpful to those who ask for their cases to be reviewed.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

I know that some hon. Members, including myself, are anxious to have a chance to debate child benefits and the cold climate allowance, and I shall therefore be brief. I endorse everything that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). I share with him a reluctance to be churlish, but it is inevitable to be so. I am not convinced by what the Minister said because I do not believe that the Minister was convinced by his own argument. From the time some months ago when the reviews and initial reports were announced and presented, the Minister has argued against any form of review or appeal. Now he tries to sound convincing or to be convinced himself, and to do that he has had to discard all those arguments or turn them on their heads.

There is no internal consistency in the case that the Minister tried to advance. That is because, as has already been noted in the debate, the Council on Tribunals has said that the Government are removing a right of independent appeal which has existed in law for 50 years. The Minister himself highlighted the central conundrum: that a regulatory system is to be replaced by a discretionary system. He told us that the review mechanism he is introducing confers on claimants clear statutory rights. There can be clear statutory rights for people in a regulated system, but there can be no such thing as clear statutory rights for people under a system based on human discretion. That has the logic of trying to compare Locke to Leviathan, which is what the Minister did in his speech.

There is a need for an independent appeal. The compromise that the Minister is hailing is nothing of the sort; it is a cosmetic effort, attempting to dress up an inadequate and unsatisfactory system. The new clause should be defeated and the Minister should be made to go away, think again and come hack with a proper system that respects human decency.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)

The debate highlights the fact that our social security system has lost all sense of proportion. After all, we are discussing appeals about single payments and not about the basic rate of income, which is where our energies should be directed.

Frogs may sleep with their eyes shut, but hon. Members should not close their eyes to what has been happening to single payments, which have more than doubled in the past year. There may have been great enthusiasm among those interested in lodging appeals and going through the tribunal system to see whether, for example, someone who, like Anne Boleyn, has six fingers can have a special payment for his or her needs or difficulties, but the system is losing all sense of proportion.

Having been involved for many years as a social worker with the complexities of our social security system, and knowing that many people find it extremely difficult to understand, I believe that continuing with the existing cumbersome mechanism is out of all proportion to what needs to be done. I greatly welcome the introduction of the social fund, which will allow greater discretionary power and local flexibility. Opposition Members cannot have it both ways. If we go for a regulatory system, we cannot have the flexibility and local variation which others, including myself, would value. More fundamentally, I believe that the fact that so much energy is going into the administration of single payments detracts from the underlying need to have an adequate basic income maintenance system, with premiums for those with special difficulties.

I applaud the Minister for having introduced the new clause and I welcome the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir. G. Finsberg) who said that it was possible and acceptable for social security officers to act independently within the system. The new clause will clear up the expectations and rights of claimants and will introduce an element of proportionality into a system which has recently been losing all sense of proportion and cannot be said to be serving the claimants whom we all hope to help.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

A serious situation is developing in my area and, I am sure, in many other parts of the country. In the area covered by the Wakefield metropolitan council, a backlog of single payment applications has been building up and the situation has become so serious that one area office has had to advertise in the local press asking people to be patient because it cannot deal with all the single payment applications.

My worry is that pressure will build up and the officers will be pushed into making unfair decisions because they do not have enough time to consider cases properly. The thousands of people whose cases are awaiting decisions should have an independent appeal procedure.

I have heard from an old gentleman who says that he has not had a new suit for 20 years and that, although he takes size 8 shoes he is having to wear size 9 shoes, which he buys at the market. A dear old lady of 83 told me that she has never applied for social security, but now needs some clothing to make her feel respectable when she goes out. Another lady aged 80 told me that she has been saving money to go on only the third holiday of her life, but is now having to spend it on household necessities.

Those applications and many others are in the queue at social security offices. If they are turned down because officers do not have time to look into them, there should be a right of appeal. We believe that there ought to be a safeguard, and I hope that the Government will share our view.

Mr. Newton

I, too, will try to be brief, and I hope that the House will understand the reasons for that.

A number of comments, especially those by the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) and other Opposition Members, have been directed to the basic proposition whether there should be an appeal to the independent appeal tribunals that we have for the present regulated system and will have for the regulated parts of the system in future. We went over that ground exhaustively in Committee and it would be wrong for me to rehearse all the arguments, especially given the time constraints faced by the House.

However, I ask the House to consider whether, after all the trouble that we have gone to in trying to improve—I think that it is widely acknowledged that we have succeeded—the appeal tribunals which take decisions within sets of regulations passed by Parliament, to improve the legal quality of those decisions by importing legal chairmen and to relate the system more closely to a regulated system, we would be doing anyone a favour by asking those tribunals to take a completely different decision, not within regulations passed by Parliament. but under directions and guidelines, including budgetary guidelines, made by the Secretary of State.

I suspect that it would be a cause of anxiety if we asked tribunals to do two different jobs, and it might undermine some of the improvements that we have made in their work. I know that some hon Members do not accept that view, but it cannot be dismissed.

I also ask hon. Members to bear in mind the fact that part of the background to the move to a regulated system in respect of single payments and other parts of the system in 1980 was dissatisfaction with the way in which the previous discretionary system, with appeals to the previous supplementary benefit appeals tribunals —which were not subject to the discretionary guidelines of the Supplementary Benefits Commission—was working and the extent to which it was leading to variable decision-making throughout the country. The previous Government found the position so unsatisfactory that they set up the social assistance review in the late 1970s which led t, s into the present, more regulated, system.

I shall look into the points made by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) about the working of the single payments system in his area. En the past few weeks my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced a substantial increase in the number of DHSS staff throughout the country, and that may encourage the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) asked me about his new clause 16 and housing benefit appeals. He will know what I said in Committee, and that I held out the possibility of making some sort of amendment on Report. However, I think he will acknowledge that I spoke in very cautious terms. As it would be necessary to talk the matter through with the local authority associations, particularly as those who make housing benefit decisions at present are not adjudication officers, and as there are clearly several very difficult issues to be resolved, I did not think it right to bring forward an amendment on Report. That is not to say that I have forgotten the problem or dismissed it. We are continuing to look at it very carefully, as I understand the points made by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.

6 pm

I think that there is a little misunderstanding between hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and me. I recognise that he does not entirely agree with me, but I repeat that there is no reason why our proposals should deprive people of the type of independent advice that they get from bodies outside the Department, which will, and can, operate regardless of the review or appeal mechanism within the Department. There will continue to be a role for citizens advice bureaux, Members of Parliament and others within whatever system we have.

I was asked several questions, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley), about what notification of the review would be given to people. I assure my hon. Friend that those seeking a review will receive a formal notification, by which I mean a written notification, of the outcome of the review, both at local level and following a review by a social fund inspector. Procedures for that will be set out in directions. We envisage that the review by a social fund officer will be on the basis of the person seeking the review being able to be heard and to take a representative with him.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern), asked about inspectors. The intention is for inspectors to be stationed at regional level, and at a significant distance from the local office.

I think that I have touched, albeit briefly, on most of the points raised in the debate. I hope that hon. Members will understand if I have been unable to respond to them all, but I shall read the debate carefully afterwards.

Mrs. Beckett

The Minister referred again to the fact that people objected to the discretionary system that existed before the present system of single payments with statutory regulations. He is perfectly well aware that people objected, not to the method of the appeal, but to the discretionary nature of the system. Yet that is what the Minister is restoring, without even the benefit of a right of appeal to an independent body.

The only other observation that I have time to make involves a point made by the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley). She referred rather unkindly to Members of Parliament closing their eyes to the fact that the number of single payments has increased. Opposition Members are very conscious of the way in which the number has increased. We deplore the fact that this is due to increased poverty and to the vastly increased level of unemployment. It is extraordinary that she should chide hon. Members about closing their eyes to the facts, when she apparently is quite content to close her eyes to the observations made by the Council on Tribunals and to the removal of an independent right of appeal that has existed for 50 years.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

Does the hon. Lady agree that a disproportionate amount of energy goes into fighting over single payments compared with the amount that should be going into discussing the basic rate? That is particularly true given the small number of people who claim single ayments and the proportion of the budget that goes towards them. There is an unfair mechanism within the social security system. We should be talking about basic rates of income support rather than about single payments.

Mrs. Beckett

I accept that we should be talking about basic rates of income support. Indeed, Opposition Members do talk about that. Next time the Opposition table an amendment on extending the long-term rate of supplementary benefit or the equivalent, for the long-term unemployed, I hope that the hon. Lady will come into the Lobby with us. We would certainly appreciate that.

We would very much like to press this matter to a Division, but we have one reason for not doing so. Since the timetable motion was agreed, the Government have tabled two new clauses, including this one, which have substantially pre-empted time which might otherwise have been devoted to major debates. We are most anxious to reach new clause 1, so we shall not take 15 minutes for a vote. However, that is our only reason for not dividing the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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