HL Deb 10 December 1998 vol 595 cc1066-77

Second Reading debate resumed.

5.25 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns

My Lords, reference was made much earlier this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, to the usual suspects taking part in this debate. I suspect that I am indeed one such spokesperson.

As other noble Lords explained earlier, the Bill deals principally with the complex and technical process of the administrative transfer of functions from the Secretary of State for Social Security to the Inland Revenue and the Treasury. I have approached my examination of the Bill by asking what it would mean for the individual taxpayer and contributor.

Overall, there are just two issues which I will seek to address now and in later stages of the Bill. The first is a general but practical matter. Can the transfer be carried out effectively? Secondly, what are the proposals for appeals systems? That is a subject in which I retain a keen interest having sat for many years locally as a lay member of a social security appeal tribunal.

I add my thanks to the noble Baroness the Minister for setting up the briefing meeting in an effort to obviate the need for having so many probing amendments at the Committee stage. I may ask questions today which the noble Baroness answered at that meeting. I do so in an effort to put answers on the record. Answers which I found most helpful last week I am sure I will find helpful again today.

The noble Baroness will recognise that on occasions it may be necessary in Committee to put down one or two probing amendments on the same basis—that it is important to test out the aims and objectives against likely outcomes. This will not be done in a partisan manner but perhaps in the manner described during the passage of the Social Security Act earlier this year as the "Bassingthwaighte principle"—that is, where there is a lack of partisanship and agreement on the Bill, paradoxically, one sometimes has to be even more careful about analysing the aims and objectives. I notice that the noble Baroness has some misgivings on this point. I do not think that we will be detaining her overlong in Committee despite that principle.

First, can this transfer be carried out effectively? I am something of an IT anorak, but even I can appreciate the potential in the Bill for bureaucratic and IT meltdown. Questions will arise relating to data protection. It is essential that the public can be assured that the transfer will be carried out in such a way that the integrity of the system is maintained throughout the process of change—in other words, it carries on working properly—and that confidential information is not disclosed inadvertently or improperly.

Public confidence in the use of IT in complex DSS operations has been shaken by the current fiasco of the computer glitches at the DSS which has left millions of personal pension holders being owed well over £1 billion by the Government. New computers, which were set up to deal with the NI records of the entire nation, are sadly in a shambles after a summer of turmoil. The new system—NIRS2, the national insurance recording system—cost £171 million and is one of the biggest in Europe. It was an ambitious and proper project to be undertaken. It holds 65 million individual contribution records. It was switched on in July but had to be shut down almost immediately due to technical problems.

Each April the Contributions Agency calculates how much people have paid in contributions and what rebate is due to those with personal pensions. This is usually paid during the summer. But this year, no payments had been made by October. The computer was shut down over the summer and the DSS has been playing catch up ever since. Because the money has not been invested, those affected will also miss out on the autumn rise in the stock market. More than £2¼ billion-worth of payments have been missed already, with more than £1 billion still owed. I understand that insurers think it extremely unlikely that the problems will be resolved before March next year. In a briefing note to insurers the Contributions Agency admits that more problems have been encountered than were anticipated". Perhaps that is the understatement of the year.

In the light of that difficulty, how confident are the Government that that will be a one-off problem with large computer systems, and how will they ensure that similar problems cannot plague the transfer of functions which will follow the passage of the Bill?

I note that paragraph 228 of the helpful Explanatory Notes refers to the costs involved in such matters as making the necessary amendments to IT systems. How will the Government make the public confident that the new systems will work during and after the transfer of functions in the light of the problems faced this summer by the Contributions Agency?

A second related problem is data protection, an issue raised earlier by my noble friend Lord Higgins. Clause 5 introduces Schedule 5, which sets out the powers to exchange contributions information following the transfer. The Explanatory Notes state: Schedule 5 inserts new gateways and amends existing ones so that the Inland Revenue and DSS can exchange the information necessary to carry out their functions". I note the attempts at reassurance in paragraphs 129 and 130, but I remain concerned about who controls the "Open Sesame" command to those new gateways and about whether the command could be misused, either intentionally or in error. We shall need to pursue such questions in Committee.

I turn to appeals. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, referred to the fact that appeals concerning contracting-out matters, credits and home responsibilities protection, will be heard by the new unified appeals tribunals to be set up under the Social Security Act 1998. I should be grateful if the Minister could explain further why those issues have been left with the unified appeals tribunals systems. At the briefing last week the noble Baroness helpfully gave two reasons for that: first, that she believed that such cases would be rare, and, secondly, that commissioners were lawyers, but that unified appeals tribunals could contain expert members—either actuaries or pensions experts. Can the noble Baroness confirm that those are the two main reasons—perhaps there are others—why those matters have been left with the unified appeals tribunals? How rare is "rare" expected to be? Have the Government felt it necessary to take steps to recruit such pensions experts and actuaries? Can appellants expect prompt hearings? What is the Government's estimate of the likely waiting time for such cases?

Still on the subject of experts, but in a slightly different context, I note that Clause 8(2) states: Where it appears to an officer of the Board that a matter before him involves a question of fact requiring special expertise, he may direct that in dealing with that matter he shall have the assistance of one or more experts". The notes cite the example of medical evidence being relevant to a claim for sick pay.

What is the intention in the regulations about the occasions on which assistance shall be sought and what is the recommendation about when such assistance ought to be sought? I approach this matter from a practical point of view. I have served on appeals tribunals where a decision has been taken not to seek assistance from experts and subsequently that has proved to be a problem. What if an officer of the board does not seek such assistance when the person who is being investigated, the appellant, believes that that should have been done? What would be the appellant's avenue to seek redress in such circumstances?

We shall also need to ask questions at a later stage about the arrangements for the Inland Revenue procedures for investigation and appeal. I refer, for example, to paragraph 100 of the Explanatory Notes, which refers to the "new section 110ZA … powers". Perhaps the Minister could clear up that minor matter before Committee by writing to me rather than attempting to do so tonight. Paragraph 100 states that, initially, the powers will be exercised by, the former staff of the Contributions Agency who will become officers of the Inland Revenue when functions are transferred". However, paragraph 111 states: Initially the officers authorised by the Inland Revenue will largely he the former members of the Contributions Agency who currently use the powers conferred by section 110 of the Social Security Administration Act. If the powers are to be exercised by those who have not been Contributions Agency officers, presumably there could be issues regarding training to be considered at an early stage. Can the Minister comment now—perhaps in writing would be better—on whether paragraph 100 or 111 is the more accurate?

I have one final question on appeals and it is one where I find myself treading on unfamiliar territory. Clause 12 refers to regulations governing appeals; in particular, to the role of the Lord Advocate. Can the Minister confirm that the reference to the Lord Advocate's role and powers in this Bill is still relevant in the light of the changes wrought by the Scotland Act?

I recall that during the course of our debates on the Social Security Act earlier this year the Lord Advocate at that stage opposed the Question that Clause 7 stand part of the Bill. On 30th March, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hardie, stated Under the terms of the Scotland Bill, the Lord Advocate will remain as head of the Systems of Criminal Prosecution and Deaths Investigation in Scotland. He will also be the Law Officer to the Scottish Executive. Most of his other ministerial policy functions, including those relating to tribunals, will be transferred to the Scottish Ministers … That does not preclude the possibility that the Lord Advocate, as a Minister in the Scottish Executive, might have similar functions to those he exercises at present in relation to tribunals. But it will not be clear who would be the Minister responsible for these functions in Scotland until after Scottish devolution has taken place". [Official Report, 30/3/98; cols. 117–118.] I should be grateful, therefore, if the noble Baroness could point to the provisions which make it possible for the Lord Advocate to act in the manner prescribed in Clause 12.

Like other noble Lords, I have struggled to get to grips with the technicalities of the Bill, but perhaps not with the success of some other noble Lords. I tried to approach it from the point of view of what it will mean to the ordinary taxpayer and contributor. I shall continue with that struggle in Committee.

5.37 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I regard myself as an erratic these days on social security matters. I might even be described as a "dilettante", and it is noticeable that I am the only Member of your Lordships' House speaking today who is very firmly on the Back Benches. That said, I believe it would have been reasonable for the noble Baroness to have opened by saying that this is a very complicated Bill with two very simple purposes; namely, to pass the operational functions of collecting and recording National Insurance contributions from the Contributions Agency to the Inland Revenue, and to allow the Inland Revenue to deal with SERPS, statutory sick pay, statutory maternity pay and, of course, their appeals, rather than the Secretary of State. My noble friend Lady Anelay has just "zeroed in" on matters concerning appeals and I shall not go any further than that.

This change results in the Inland Revenue holding the National Insurance Fund, from which contributory benefits are paid. In a nutshell, we no longer have NICS but NICIRS. This obviously makes logistical sense. For many years, the Inland Revenue has had the responsibility of being agent for the Department of Social Security for collecting the vast proportion of money going into the fund, both from employers on a monthly basis and employees on a weekly or monthly basis, and the self-employed on an annual basis. These three amount to well over 90 per cent.—I think that the notes say 94 per cent., if memory serves me right—of the total sums going into the fund. The rest is made up of Treasury top-ups, as in most years the Treasury has to subsidise the fund because incomings and outgoings do not match, and of voluntary contributions, which are collected by the Secretary of State.

So far so good, but being a dilettante, as I said at the beginning, I was not invited to the meeting which the noble Baroness so generously held and therefore my questions may be a little more lengthy and detailed than they would otherwise have been. However, I certainly do not expect the noble Baroness to answer them today. I shall be happy to receive a letter before Committee stage.

To my mind the Bill gives rise to a number of questions, but, first, I wish to give half a cheer to the Minister and her department. Between them they have provided a document on the Bill that I have never seen before entitled Explanatory Notes. Other interested parties and I—this is clear from the speeches we have heard—are grateful for that document. I assume, though, that that is all we shall get and that it replaces the more normal Notes on Clauses. If I am right, I am afraid that I shall contribute to a rather longer Committee stage than would otherwise be the case, especially in regard to the schedules.

I take Schedule 1 as an example. Obviously it is right that the occupational pension schemes (contracting out) regulations 1996 S.I. Number 1996/1172 be transferred. I confess that I have had no time to check up on this, but why, oh why, is not the whole set of regulations transferred? Why does the Secretary of State need to hang on to Regulations 23 and 61? There must be a reason, but is it right when other regulations are transferred lock, stock and barrel? The Minister would be right to criticise me for this Committee stage point and ignore it when she replies to the debate, as I have said. She would be quite wrong, though, to fail to answer my next question.

I join my noble friend Lord Higgins in asking why is there no financial memorandum attached to, rather than separated from, the Bill? Is the noble Baroness—I hope not—trying to disguise the fact that fewer civil servants will be required, and that BG Plc (that is, the British Government Plc, not British Gas) will save money as a result, but, as my noble friend Lord Higgins pointed out, not much and not yet? More generally, will everyone who receives the Bill automatically receive also the accompanying notes? After all, as my noble friend also pointed out, anyone reading the Bill needs the financial memorandum at the very least. That, of course, is not attached to the Bill itself.

My next point is, what price the fund? Government Ministers of all persuasions have defended the separation of national insurance contributions and tax from 1948 onwards as being for two entirely different purposes. One of the lines of defence used was that they were administered by two entirely separate government departments. This defence disappears once this Bill becomes operative. I must confess I always thought that the argument was rather opaque, not to say threadbare, but there you are. To a great extent junior Ministers must do as they are told!

However, is this Bill the thin edge of the wedge? The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made the point that the general public and the taxpayer have always believed NICs to be another form of tax. Now that we have NICIRS, as I said, they will be even more convinced of that. Shall we soon see a Bill which seeks to do away with the National Insurance Fund altogether? If so, there is nothing to stop all benefits being means tested rather than only some non-contributory benefits, as is the case at the moment. My noble friend Lord Higgins waxes lyrical on this subject—indeed he is muttering in my ear as I speak—and therefore I shall leave it to him to carry this particular flag as and when he wishes to do so, as I have no doubt that he will.

My interest is current. The Inland Revenue is among the minnows of government departments. I know the noble Baroness said that technically it is not a government department, but to all intents and purposes it is. Indeed I seem to remember that it is an agency looked after by the Treasury. Will future legislation regarding the fund be included in the Finance Acts? If so, this House will be yet again disadvantaged in that we shall be able to discuss it but not to amend it. We shall not be able to spend many happy hours—as I once did at the Dispatch Box opposite—seeking to amend, for example, a clause on the Treasury supplement. Will these matters come under the heading of money Bills? Will they be given the Speaker's certificate, and so on? Who will conduct the appeals with regard to Clauses 10 to 13 of the Bill? Will it be the Commissioners for Inland Revenue, or will the existing arrangements continue? Despite the fact that my noble friend mentioned this matter, it is unclear to me at least.

I think I have probably spoken long enough for now. It would be unfair to subject the Minister to any more questions on what is, after all, a Second Reading debate. However, I wish to congratulate the Minister and the Government on Clause 23 which concerns Northern Ireland, as the Minister mentioned in her opening speech. Northern Ireland has always been determined as far as humanly possible to have its own statute book. As far as I can see, that position is maintained by the clause. I finish as I began by giving this Bill half a cheer.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord finished with half a cheer as I was about to thank the House for the three-quarter cheers from the other speakers in the debate. I thought that was extremely begrudging of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. I can think only that it has something to do with the supplemental section on Northern Ireland not being in Part I but only in Part III. But perhaps I am being unreasonable.

I am delighted that apart from the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, the Bill has been so broadly and warmly welcomed. I am grateful in particular for the response to the Explanatory Notes and to the briefing meetings which I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, could not attend as so many of the points he raised today could perhaps have been usefully raised at those meetings. However, as I said, we shall offer another meeting before Committee stage of which I hope the noble Lord will be able to take advantage as I accept that these are difficult and technical issues. It often helps to understand the conceptual thinking behind the measure. The officials may be able to help us all with that, including myself. I look forward to seeing the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, at the meeting.

The discussion has ranged from the contribution principle to the millennium bug. I shall do my best to answer the major points, but your Lordships will understand that as about 30 or 40 points were raised in the course of this short debate, some of them are perhaps better addressed in correspondence.

First, I shall deal with some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. The first point he made was, I believe, also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. I refer to the ratio of the high cost to low savings in this Bill. The noble Lord said that his colleague Sir George Young rejected such a Bill on a previous occasion. That was because Sir George Young was, I think, motivated by what was efficient in the name of government. That clearly was the ratio of costs to savings.

However, that is not why we proposed this Bill. We accept that, at least to start with, there are primarily more costs than savings—to answer the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay—because much of the expenditure is investment in staff training which, as she rightly identified, is crucial to the activity. Therefore we may spend £16 million or £17 million for the first couple of years and then subsequent savings may be of the order of £3 million or £4 million. There is a high front end loaded cost in staff training. We think that is right.

The purpose of the Bill, as I have tried to make clear, is to ensure that we produce an integrated service for employers and employees. I do not know why Sir George Young rejected the measure other than on cost grounds. I think we all accept that national insurance is different from taxation. Clearly national insurance is not graduated, whereas taxation is. National insurance is concerned only with earnings whereas taxation is concerned with income. There are no reliefs in national insurance whereas there are reliefs in taxation. One pays at the lower earnings level with regard to national insurance, whereas one pays annually and cumulatively with regard to taxation. I think we accept that those are different structures. We are not at this stage in this Bill proposing integration of those structures.

But nonetheless it remains the case that 94 per cent. of CA money is collected by the Inland Revenue. The situation will become more efficient and easier for employers and employees and the self-employed if we tackle this matter in the way that we propose. It is the quality of service that we seek to drive forward in this Bill rather than immediate savings. Had Sir George Young perhaps had a wider remit at the appropriate time, he too might have decided that it was worth proceeding with this measure. The warmth of welcome that the Bill has received today suggests that perhaps only five years on Sir George Young might have changed his mind.

The second substantive point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, which also occupied the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, regarded the more general debate and is a proper Second Reading debate issue. It related to the contributory principle and NICs, and whether NICs were effectively becoming a tax. There seemed to be a suggestion that the role of the contributory principle was being eaten into by means testing. The idea was that under the contributory principle, there was less and less of a relationship between what was paid into the system and what people got out of it, and therefore effectively this was a hypothecated tax and we should, as it were, say that the emperor is wearing no clothes. I believe that was the argument, if I may bring together the position of both noble Lords.

That is not a fair description. It is true that there has been some growth in means testing at the expense of the contributory principle. Probably the biggest single incursion into means testing was conducted by the previous government when they reduced the contributory basis of unemployment benefit from two years to six months and sent a whole host of people, including young single people, onto means-tested benefit. That was one of the biggest incursions into the contributory principle, and with the least justification.

What we are doing in the two areas that the noble Lord identified as regards widows' benefit is extending for the first time the contributory principle to widowers as well, which I should have thought the noble Lord would have recognised as an extension of the contributory principle, and by relating incapacity benefit more clearly to the contributory conditions. At present people can receive IB 20 years after paying in a contributory condition. Those people might have been unemployed for all the intervening time. By relating it more closely, we are defending the integrity of the contribution principle.

The second point I wish to make is that we accept, and always have, that there must be limitations on the contributory principle, simply because it privileges people who have the luxury, as it were, of a 35 or 40-hour a week job extending over 40 years. That means that women, part-time workers, those who are in and out of employment and those who have a disability tend to have a less adequate income under the contributory principle than would otherwise be the case and it must be supplemented regularly by a means-tested benefit.

Therefore there is no single answer as to the right nature of benefit support. The contributory principle is one answer, particularly for pensions; the means testing of benefit is another, also for particular groups who may be in and out of the labour market who have special needs, family needs and so on which cannot be covered by a contributory benefit; but there are also category benefits such as child benefit.

A main reason why contributory benefits have fallen as a proportion of social security expenditure has been partly the growth of means-tested benefits, but means-tested benefits of a particular sort. Since the late 1960s and early 1970s the three major benefits that we have seen growing, all of which are necessarily income-related, have been housing benefit, in-work benefits, and the "citizen's right" benefits of disabled people. The first two are by definition income-related and the third is a category benefit. That is one of the main reasons that the amount of expenditure in the social security system, which is contribution-linked, has fallen. It is not just about the increase in means-tested benefits, although that has also been true. It is that different types of benefit have grown up for which either an income test or alternatively a category test is relevant. I do not believe that anyone in this House thinks that that is an inappropriate way forward. It is clearly not right to have a benefit such as housing benefit on a contributory basis which takes no account of housing cost and housing need.

I therefore hope that noble Lords do not continue to insist that the Government are getting rid of a contributory principle and that as a result we might just as well accept that national insurance is a hypothecated tax. The picture of social security is much wider and more complicated than that. We should accept that different contingencies are rightly entitled to different responses. Some benefits that are attached to the labour market should be on a contributory basis; others associated with special needs may be category or income-related. What is important is that we match the right benefit with the right sort of situation. Those are some of the discussions and debates that we shall have over the next year or two.

The third issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, related to the lower earnings limit and entitlement. It will be a matter for the Chancellor to determine when we bring forward our proposals. There are many approaches that he could take. He could do it by crediting people in; by deeming that they have paid a contribution; or by modelling it on home responsibility payments. The undertaking has been given that people who move from the 65 to the 81–83 personal tax level will not thereby lose their entitlement to benefit. These discussions are ongoing and the Chancellor will make his determination in due course.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, were worried about the weight being borne by the IT system in this change, and in particular the question of the millennium bug. Like the noble Baroness, I am an anorak or a windcheater nerd when it comes to IT systems. We are transferring the existing CA business, and with it the existing IT system, over to the Inland Revenue. I am told that the only main change will be the heading on the stationery—it will no longer read "CA" or "DSS", but "IR". In other words, the systems go over as they currently stand. Therefore there will be a very limited impact on the IT systems. I agree with the noble Baroness that if we were to see a repetition of the NIRS experience, it would be extremely worrying. I am assured that NIRS is not relevant to this consideration. As I said, there will be a limited impact; we have well-developed programmes within IR and the amount of IT change that is required is trivial because the system will be taken over as a package in its existing form.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, raised an interlocking set of questions about penalties, privacy and visiting powers. It is certainly—

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I am mystified by the expression, "visiting powers", which can probably be more correctly described as "carrying out a raid".

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, that was obviously a joke by the noble Lord and I receive it in that way. There is no indication of knocking down doors at 4 a.m. I should like to accuse him of seeing too many "cops and robbers" films on TV, but that would be to impugn the work and attention that he gives to this House. No, any such arrangements will be made at a reasonable time and in co-operation with those involved. Certainly the financial penalties could increase. But they will change from being criminal to civil penalties.

The private staff about whom the noble Lord was worried will be under the same duties of confidentiality as the Civil Service. This is a path well-trodden by the previous government when they originally constructed the EDS contract, and already well-trodden by local authorities, which have arrangements with private companies to handle quite sensitive information on issues such as housing benefit.

As regards privacy of information, we are not creating any new cross-departmental flow of information, merely protecting the right of the current flow of information.

As for the visiting powers, I am told that they go back 50 years, to 1946. It is estimated that there are some half a dozen or so such cases a year, under a warrant. I understand that visits are always arranged to take place at a reasonable time and in a civilised manner. If the noble Lord has any evidence to the contrary, we should like to know. As I understand matters, there is no substantive change in any of those fields.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, gave his support and pressed us particularly on national insurance as a proper scheme. I have tried to answer those points more generally. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, raised questions about appeals and the noble Baroness referred particularly to appeals on pension matters. She asked why they should go before the unified appeals tribunal rather than to the tax appeal commissioners, and how many there might be.

Appeals on pension matters are expected to involve relatively complex, specialised issues which we do not believe are appropriate to send to the general commissioners as a lay tribunal, but which are equally not appropriate to send to the special commissioners, who, while legally qualified, do not necessarily have any pensions expertise. By contrast, the unified appeals tribunals can be constituted, and pensions appeals are intended to be constituted, to include a member with personal experience in pensions. I hope that that provides the explanation sought by the noble Baroness.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, raised a number of detailed points. He referred to the delays. He asked why there were no notes on clauses. The explanatory notes replaced those and that was regarded as a welcome improvement. With regard to the financial schedule, which was also referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, as I understand it, the change came from the Modernisation Committee, possibly from another place, and has already been applied to other Bills. I am receiving a nod from the Table, so I believe my information is correct. However, if noble Lords are concerned about this matter, I am more than willing to consider it to ensure that, if necessary, we have belt-and-braces information. It is a legitimate and reasonable concern to raise.

The questions of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, were detailed and I should prefer to answer them in writing; and, if he is not happy with that, to raise them at the pre-Committee meeting with officials that we seek to have.

I hope I have addressed the major points raised with regard to policy issues in the Bill. I thank noble Lords for welcoming the Bill. I hope that the next meeting with officials to tease out what are inevitably technical issues—but which, I accept, have a real impact on how people live and organise their working lives—will be helpful.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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