HC Deb 13 May 1998 vol 312 cc378-80

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 3, line 41, at end insert ("and (c) in relation to Scotland, the Chief Medical Officer of the Scottish Office.")

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Keith Bradley)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2, 4, 7, 8, 98, 100, 101 and 113.

Mr. Bradley

The amendments change the provisions relating to appointment of persons to the panel to act as members of appeal tribunals. The Bill currently provides for the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Advocate each to appoint a separate panel under clauses 6 and 7 respectively. The effect of the amendments is that the Lord Chancellor will be responsible for the appointment under clause 6 of a single panel for the whole of Great Britain.

The amendments were prompted by the introduction of the Scotland Bill, which interacts with the operation of clause 7. Under the provisions of that Bill, there will be some changes to the role of the Lord Advocate. It is possible that the Lord Advocate, as a Minister in the Scottish Executive, might have functions similar to those which he currently exercises in relation to tribunals; however, the position will not be clear until after Scottish devolution has taken place. At that stage, the UK Government may consider transferring a Scottish Minister the function of making appointments to a panel in relation to Scotland, through provisions in the Scotland Bill for the further transfer of functions.

We consider it important to have clarity in responsibility for the appointments and to preserve the independence of the panel and appointments to it. We have concluded that it would not be right to retain clause 7 in the knowledge that the functions it lays on the Lord Advocate would be removed through another Bill currently before Parliament. I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)

I have listened carefully to the Minister's speech and read the various notes on the clauses and the amendments, but I do not fully understand why the Government believe it necessary to make such a change.

If I heard the Minister correctly, he said that, once the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive were functioning fully, it was either likely or possible for the power of appointment to be repatriated to a Minister who may be a member of the Scottish Executive. As I understand the Scotland Bill, the powers of the Lord Advocate in general will not be dissimilar to the powers of the Lord Advocate today, yet the Lord Advocate is to be stripped of an important power to make appointments to a tribunal.

That raises the issue of more power haemorrhaging, on a temporary basis, to the Lord Chancellor's Department, and I wonder to what extent there will be enthusiasm for the power being repatriated to the Scottish Executive at some stage in the future. Once power has moved in one direction, it is hard to imagine it moving back to the Scottish Executive. I should be grateful for some explanation from the Minister on that point, and specifically on the process to be used by the Lord Chancellor's Department to ensure that the input that the Lord Advocate can clearly bring to the appointments process will be assured while the arrangements change.

It is a point of interest and importance that, during the passage of the Scotland Bill, the Government resisted amendments that I tabled with the support of many voluntary organisations, which were designed to devolve to the Scottish Parliament the power of administering various aspects of social security. I stressed the importance of ensuring that a Scottish perspective was brought to the process of administering social security in Scotland.

For example, the House has often debated the weaknesses of the administration of the benefit integrity project, and I should have thought that a Scottish perspective would bring tighter administrative processes to that project. I do not understand why the Government fiercely resisted my amendments then, given that we are now faced with proposals in the Social Security Bill to take more power away from one of the Ministers who may be a member of the Scottish Executive and who could act to secure Scottish interests.

I seek clarification. I fear that an important power currently exercised by the senior Law Officer in Scotland may not be exercised by the Scottish Executive, and the temporary hiatus is unsatisfactory.

Mr. Bradley

It would not be appropriate to repeat all the arguments advanced in debates on the Scotland Bill. Let us stick to the point that we are discussing. We are trying to ensure clarity during the interim period until the proper functions and arrangements for transferred functions in the Scotland Bill have been finally clarified. We do not want any delays or problems in the appeal system in the meantime, and we want to ensure its continued independence.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

The Minister says, "until the powers and functions have been clarified." What is the stand-by position if clarification does not work out in the way that I assume the Minister expects?

Mr. Bradley

It is not our intention that the arrangements will not work out. We cannot hypothetically guess what would happen if something else does not happen.

Mr. Burns

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Bradley

No. This is a small point, and I want to make progress.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) about the Lord Advocate's being made aware of, and involved in, discussions, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on it. We want to ensure a smooth transition of functions. Agreeing with what was universally agreed in the Lords will advance that process, and ensure that there is no confusion. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman, but I shall consider his point and ensure that he receives a written explanation if the arrangements that we intend to introduce will, in any way, undermine the Lord Advocate's opportunity to be involved in discussions.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 2 agreed to.

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