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The Social Fund and Social Fund Officers

Orders of the Day — Social Security Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 23rd July 1986.

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Lords amendment: No. 52, in page 41, line 23, leave out "directions given" and insert "regulations made".

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this it will be convenient to take the following Lords amendments: No. 53, in clause 33, page 42, line 16, leave out direct" and insert "determine".

No. 54, in page 42, line 18, leave out "direct" and insert "determine".

No. 55, in page 42, line 22, leave out "directs" and insert "determines".

No. 56, in page 42, line 34, leave out from "person" to end of line 36 and insert.

who is liable to maintain the person by or on behalf of whom the application for the award was made or any person in relation to whose needs the award was made.(8A) Subsections (3) to (6) of section 25 above have effect for the purposes of subsection (8)(c) above as they have effect for the purposes of sections 23 to 25 above. No. 57, in page 43, line 9, leave out "general directions issued" and insert "regulations made".

No. 58, in page 43, line 13, at end insert (11A) A person applying for a social fund payment may appeal to a social security appeal tribunal constituted in accordance with section 97(2) to (2E) of the Social Security Act 1975 against any determination of a social fund officer with respect to the application.(11B) On an appeal under subsection (11A) above the appeal tribunal may—

  1. (a) confirm the determination appealed against;
  2. (b) substitute for that determination any other determination which a social fund officer could have made; or
  3. (c) if the appeal is against a determination under subsection (3) or (4) above, set aside that determination."
Government motions to disagree with Lords amendments Nos. 57 and 58.

Government amendments in lieu of Lords amendment No. 58: (a), new clause —The social fund Commissioner'A.—(1) There shall be an officer to be known as the social fund Commissioner (in this section referred to as "the Commissioner.").(2) The Commissioner shall be appointed by the Secretary of State.(3) The Commissioner—

  1. (a) shall appoint such social fund inspectors;
  2. (b) may appoint such officers and staff for himself and for social fund inspectors,
as he thinks tit, but with the consent of the Secretary of State and the Treasury as to numbers.(4) Apppointments under subsection (3) above shall he made from persons made available to the Commissioner by the Secretary of State.(5) It shall be the duty of the Commissioner—
  1. (a) to monitor the quality of decisions of social fund inspectors and give them such advice and assistance as he thinks fit to improve the standard of their decisions;
  2. (b) to arrange such training of social fund inspectors as he considers appropriate; and
  3. (c) to carry out such other functions in connection with the work of social fund inspectors as the Secretary of State may direct.
(6) The Commissioner shall report annually in writing to the Secretary of State on the standards of reviews by social fund inspectors and the Secretary of State shall publish his report.'.(b), in page 41, line 22, leave out from 'fund' to 'shall' in line 28 and insert—'(1A) Payments may be made out of that fund, in accordance with this Part of this Act—
  1. (a) to meet, in prescribed circumstances, maternity expenses and funeral expenses; and
  2. (b) to meet other needs in accordance with directions given or guidance issued by the Secretary of State.
(1B) Payments under this section.'.(c), in page 41, line 28, at end insert— (1C) Social fund payments to meet funeral expenses may in all cases he recovered, as if they were funeral expenses, out of the estate of the deceased, and (subject to section 51 below) by no other means.'.

(d), in page 41, line 35, leave out subsection (4).

(e), in page 42, line 6, at end insert 'such as are mentioned in subsection (1A)(b) above; and the Secretary of State may allocate an amount, or allocate different amounts for different purposes, for such payments by a particular social fund officer or group of officers in a financial year.'. (f), in page 42, line 10, after 'payment', insert ', such as is mentioned in section 32(1A)(b) above'. (g), in page 42, line 18, leave out 'under section 32(1)(b) or (c) above'. (h), in page 42, line 22, leave out subsection (6).

(i), in page 42, line 26, leave out 'made under section 32(1)(c) above'. (j), in page 42, line 28, leave out `made under section 32(1)(c) above'. (k), in page 43, line 7, leave out '(4)' and insert '(6)'. (l), in page 43, line 36, leave out from 'inspector' to end of line 37 and insert 'appointed by the social fund Commissioner under section [The social fund Commissioner] below'. (m), in page 44, line 2, at end insert— '(4A) A social fund inspector may review a determination under subsection (3) above made by himself or some other social fund inspector.'. (n), in page 55, line 8, at end insert 'and any social fund payments such as are mentioned in section 32(1A)(a) above'. (o), in page 56, line 9, at end insert 'and any social fund payments such as are mentioned in section 32(1A)(a) above'. (p), in page 59, line 16, at end insert 'and any social fund payments such as are mentioned in section 32( 1A)(a) above'.

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

On Monday I set out in my statement to the House the view that had led to the social fund. Essentially, it is that the present single payment system is unsatisfactory and is becoming increasingly unworkable. That arises in part from a failure to distinguish sufficiently clearly between the two distinct roles of providing a basic weekly income and of meeting special emergency or one-off needs. The proposals in the Bill rest on that analysis, first, by creating a simpler, clearer structure for weekly income support and, secondly, by establishing a separate mechanism specifically designed to enable help with genuine, special, occasional needs to be given in a more practical, manageable, flexible way.

The first objective is unquestionably best met by precisely defined, closely regulated entitlement, with an appeal mechanism of the present type. That is a formal judicial structure which determines whether the law has been correctly applied in a particular case through adjudicating officers and appeal tribunals which we have improved and strengthened for that purpose.

The second objective is generally best met by a more discretionary approach operated on the basis of directions and guidelines rather than regulations so as to allow the application of a broader judgment to all the varied circumstances of individual cases. Just as we see this as a separate and distinct task, so we believe it requires its separate and distinct process of decision making through social fund officers and a different system of review.

Photo of Mr Keith Best Mr Keith Best , Ynys Môn

My hon. Friend will appreciate that for a system to appear to be fair there must be a degree of independence so that there is not automatically a bias towards either an applicant or the social fund. Justice must not only be done but must he seen to be done. Can he assure the House that an appellant can present his or her case at all levels on the procedure that he is proposing?

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

I shall come to the role that we see for the social fund commissioner, whom we have proposed in the amendment.

To ask the existing tribunals to perform this review role would be wrong from every point of view. If, in reviewing social fund decisions, they were to be subject to the directions and guidelines of the Secretary of State, the independence of their more clearly judicial role in applying regulations laid down by Parliament would be, and certainly could be, undermined. If they were not, they would in effect be acting as a second tier of discretionary decision making within no real framework. Either way, the inevitable tendency would be to build a body of case law which would risk recreating the very problems which have made the present system of regulated single payments so unsatisfactory.

As the House knows, our original proposals envisaged the first stage of review by the social fund officer, as indeed would be the case now with adjudicating officers. Beyond that we propose to review at a higher level within the normal management chain, with the applicant being given a further opportunity to put his case. In Committee we accepted that that alone might not be, and certainly might not be seen to be, sufficiently distanced from the original decision to be accepted as either fair or impartial.

Therefore, on Report we introduced proposals for a separate body of social fund inspectors, operating not only outside the local DHSS office, but outside and independent from the normal DHSS local office network and management. The inspector's role would be to establish whether the social fund officer had taken his decision properly — for example, whether it had been based on the proper evidence and in the light of all the facts. He would have power to confirm the determination made by a social fund officer, to make any determination which a social fund officer could have made—in other words, to substitute his determination—or to refer the matter back to the social fund officer for determination.

In debate in the other place and in the amendments that have come to this House as a result, the argument has been carried forward in two closely linked ways. First, directions, not guidelines, would be turned into regulations. Secondly, decisions, whether under the regulations as proposed or the guidelines, would be subject to appeal to the social security appeal tribunals.

For the reasons I have sought to give, we do not feel able to ask the House to accept the amendments. We wish to make a further clear and significant response to the concerns that underlie them. We seek to do that in three ways — partly through the amendments and partly through an earlier amendment.

The first is the community care amendment — the severe disablement premium—that we discussed earlier. As I said in that debate, we had intended that those needs should be met on a discretionary basis through the social fund. By creating the new severe disablement premium, which is decided on by adjudication officers and appeal tribunals in the normal way and is a part of the regulated entitlement of the income support scheme, we have responded to some of the concern expressed on that aspect of the social fund.

8.30 pm

Secondly, we have concluded that the proposed maternity and funeral payments should be put on a regulated basis and that decisions should be taken by normal adjudication officers, subject to the normal appeal machinery. In the case of community care reflected in the severe disablement premium and maternity and funeral payments, which are undoubtedly sensitive areas about which many hon. Members are concerned, we propose to put the entitlement into regulations. They will be decided by adjudication officers, and will be subject to the normal process of appeal.

Thirdly, for those decisions that would remain subject to the discretionary process on the basis of directions and guidelines, we propose an amendment to entrench the independence of the social fund inspectors in the role that they are assigned by the Bill.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

Will the inspectorate have a career structure of its own? Will the inspectorate be independent of the general career structure of the Department? Will the inspectors be of a more senior rank than those whose decisions they may overturn?

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

As to those questions—particularly the last one—we should wish to discuss the matter with the social fund commissioner after his appointment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to proceed.

We propose to establish the post of a social fund commissioner building on the well-established pattern—I think that it is widely accepted as valid—represented by the existing chief adjudication officer regarding the regulated part of the system.

The chief adjudication officer has his own specific position in the legislation and is statutorily independent of the Secretary of State. Our amendment proposes a social fund commissioner, similarly with his own position written into the legislation, and statutorily independent of the Secretary of State in his work—in this case, the work is to appoint the inspectors and their staff, to ensure that they are given appropriate training, and to monitor the quality of their decisions.

I shall make a further important point, because it completes, in some respects, the parallel with the chief adjudication officer. It will be within the memory of several hon. Members—certainly the hon. Members for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood)—that we responded to argument on earlier legislation—I think that it was the Health and Social Services and Social Security Adjudications Act; commonly called the 1983 HASSASSA Act—by requiring the chief adjudication officer to produce an annual report to the Secretary of State which the Secretary of State should have a duty to publish. We propose to match that requirement on the chief adjudication officer and the Secretary of State with a parallel requirement regarding the proposed social fund commissioner.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bowden Mr Andrew Bowden , Brighton, Kemptown

My hon. Friend has talked about the duties of the commissioner for monitoring the quality of decisions. Will the commissioner, if he thinks fit, be able to consider individual cases and make decisions?

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

The social fund commissioner should satisfy himself that the standards maintained by the inspectors are proper and fair, and that they operate in a reasonable manner. He will be concerned with the quality control of those working the system, and not with taking separate decisions himself.

Photo of Mr Max Madden Mr Max Madden , Bradford West

Can the Minister say what the net costs of the appeal arrangements are expected to be? Will new staff be appointed, or will the appointments be made from existing staff? Will the appeal arrangements be on a district or a regional basis?

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

The latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question would need further discussion with the commissioner and further development as we work out the proposals. We have brought forward proposals in response to quite legitimate expressions of opinion by Members of both Houses of Parliament. It is clear, from the amendment, that the social fund inspectors should be appointed from staff made available by the Secretary of State. Their responsibility as social fund inspectors would be to the social fund commissioner, in the same way as is familiar in the adjudicated side of the system.

The social fund is not simply an attempt to return single payments to discretionary form. Hon. Members opposite have found that difficult to accept. It is designed as, and we hope it will be, a new approach to what has been a difficult and intractable problem under successive Governments, and one more appropriate than that which we have at present to the meeting of genuine special needs. It requires a system of review, specifically related to the new approach. In those areas that lend themselves to regulated entitlement, such as maternity and funeral payments, as well as community care, we have met the needs of the other place and the consequent case for the normal system of adjudication and appeal.

In those areas where discretion remains, and where we believe that it must remain if we are to have the flexibility to look at individual special circumstances as they should be considered, we have responded by establishing a clear new safeguard for the independence and integrity of the appropriate process of review. Taken together, I believe that those steps constitute, as with the earlier amendment on community care, a real and significant move to meet the wishes that were expressed in another place.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Shadow Minister (Social Security)

The Secretary of State said that we had enjoyed listening to the discussions on the Bill for about 200 hours. It seems to me that during most of that time we have listened to Government Ministers saying, "We are thinking about that, we are considering that, we are discussing that with people, and we have not made up our minds."

In many ways, the speech by the Minister for Social Security was quite remarkable. Two thirds of the way through he said that it was not acceptable to the Government to include in the Bill the amendments passed in another place because it would be wrong for appeals to go to tribunals and for them to be decided as a result of directions by the Secretary of State. He said that it would make the system unworkable if tribunals acted on directions rather than on regulations. Later, he said that the amendments proposed that the tribunals should act on regulations and not on directions. He then applied the argument for the first case to the second, to which it is clearly not applicable.

There is nothing wrong with the amendments; it is just that the Government do not like them. It is clear that the Government's alternative proposals are not exactly stringent in their application. I was fascinated when, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), the Minister could not tell us not only whether there would be a separate career structure for the inspectors, but whether they would be of senior rank to those whose decisions they were reviewing, which may cast some light on the authority that he expects them to exercise.

There are problems with some of the Government's amendments, especially amendment (c), which goes further than the original Bill and which we find unacceptable. It is right for me to deal with the principal problem to which the amendments are directed — the Government's proposals to withdraw, through the Bill, rights of independent appeal that have existed for 50 years. The Government's reason for doing so is contemptible. They realise only too well that if applications are to be made for items that cannot be paid for out of weekly benefit, and those applications are to be judged on their merit, as they must be in an independent appeal, the cash limits which the Government ultimately intend to introduce will not hold. I say that with confidence, because we shall later discuss the paving proposals for the social fund by which the Government are clearly halving the already inadequate assistance now given. The scheme cannot be so severely restricted if need is to be properly weighed.

For the Government to dismiss cursorily a half-century-long civil right in their search for economy is widely considered to be a constitutional outrage. That view was clearly held by those in another place—many of them with a wealth of experience in these matters—and obviously led to the amendments that we are debating. That was also the strongly held view of the Council on Tribunals, a body which, so far as I am aware, has never before ventured into the area of political controversy, but which was so horrified by the Government's proposals that it denounced them in uncompromising terms and expressed its "grave concern" in a special report addressed to this subject alone.

It is widely accepted that the quality of decision-making is affected by the existence of an independent system of appeal. No one believes that it is an accident that, in so many cases in which an appeal is sought, and the case papers are therefore re-examined, decisions are overturned on review alone, without the full process of appeal. That happened in about 19,000 cases in 1984. An additional 8,000 decisions in that year where review had confirmed the original decision were overturned on appeal. That means that at least 8,000, and possibly up to 27,000, people received payments to which they were entitled in law, but which they received only because of the existence of an independent appeal system.

The first annual report of the Chief Adjudication Officer, as the head of the service in which these decisions are made, stated that DHSS officers make decisions on scanty evidence on the assumption that claimants will complain or appeal and that the standard of adjudication cannot objectively be regarded as satisfactory". The Council on Tribunals points out: such a high proportion of incorrect decisions is most unlikely to be improved, even using specially trained officers to the extent where the need for independent tribunals became questionable". The Government suggest that they have made concessions, but that is less than accurate. They have not made concessions in the case for independent appeal, except in respect of maternity and funeral payments. The Government have tried to find cosmetic cover to make an internal system of appeal sound independent. They refer to inspectors and to a commissioner, but a brief glance at Government amendment (a) blows the gaff and certainly calls into question the Minister's remarks.

The Minister referred to the commissioner as "statutorily independent", but proposed subsection (4) in Government amendment (a) states: appointments under subsection (3) above shall be made from persons made available to the Commissioner by the Secretary of State. Some independence! The Minister suggested that the commissioner would be concerned only with "quality control" of the system. I have no idea what he meant by that, and I doubt that he has. The inspectors and the commissioner are all to be responsible to, and in practice chosen by, the Secretary of State. They will not be, and will be seen not to be, independent. There will rightly be no confidence that each case will be judged on its merits, because cases will not be considered solely on their merits. The Government's amendments continue to fail the common test of justice. This injustice will be inflicted on those described by the Government's own Social Security Advisory Committee as "the most vulnerable" people in our society.

The Opposition are, of course, glad that the maternity and funeral payments will be judged in an independent procedure, but this highlights the truth of our argument. The Government have always stated that these payments would not be subject to cash limits and so, on these measures, fair dealing could be allowed.

There is nothing defective about the amendments. They seek merely to remedy an injustice which the Government seek to impose. The Opposition agree wholeheartedly with the Lords amendments. We hope that the other place will stand by its guns and see through the device of the Government's amendments as clearly as will the unfortunate claimants who otherwise will be subjected to these procedures.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bowden Mr Andrew Bowden , Brighton, Kemptown

I shall detain the House only briefly to make a few comments on the proposed new clause. I am deeply disappointed with it. Unfortunately, the grand title of "social fund Commissioner" is far too grand for what the commissioner has to do and for his powers. I shall consider the proposed new clause subsection by subsection.

It is, of course, reasonable that the commissioner shall be appointed by the Secretary of State", but after that, in his activities, responsibilities and powers, he is bound hand and foot by the Secretary of State. Subsection (3) states that the commissioner

  1. "(a) shall appoint such social fund inspectors;
  2. (b) may appoint such officers and staff for himself and for social fund inspectors, as he thinks fit, but with the consent of the Secretary of State and the Treasury".
We might just as well say that the commissioner can appoint anyone he likes, so long as that person is on the list supplied by the Secretary of State.

8.45 pm

What are the commissioner's duties? The great disappointment is that the commissioner, so far as I understand from the reply by my hon. Friend, will not have the power to look at individual cases. He will monitor the quality of decisions". I do not understand what that means. Will the commissioner look collectively at all the decisions made in a particular matter by the social fund inspectors and say that they were all wrong, or all right, or that some were right and some were wrong? This is a cosmetic exercise.

Subsection (6) states that the commissioner shall report annually in writing to the Secretary of State"— that is good— and the Secretary of State shall publish his report. I am deeply disappointed that the commissioner has no real powers, that he is not an ombudsman and that there is no independent tribunal. In the context of the way in which our social security system has worked for a long time, it is sad that a degree of independence has been removed.

Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood , Roxburgh and Berwickshire

I strongly subscribe to the arguments of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden). The scheme has been ill-thought-out and will eventually be shown to be so. The proposals as they stand show no real element of independence. The Minister for Social Security knows that he is in difficulty with the other place. This is an attempt to get him off the hook. I hope that, even if this measure is passed with the use of the Whips here, the other place will not accept it.

The proposed new clause refers to a "social fund Commissioner". That is an especially cruel use of the word "commissioner". The proposal tries to invest this new official creature with the considerable authority and independence of the commissioners in the existing independent appeal system. That amounts to political sleight of hand. The two are in no way analogous.

The real independence of the proposed new commissioner is highly questionable. I do not believe that they will really have the power to overturn decisions taken by inspectors. At the end of the day, someone has to take the decision. There is a power to review. The commissioner may say that he wants to change a decision. The social fund inspector may say, "That is all very well, but I think that my decision is right." What will then happen? Obviously, there is no change in the application of the guidelines, which means, indirectly, no change in the cash limits faced by the social fund inspectors and the social fund commissioner. That is not acceptable.

The fact that the review will be taken in-house means that the social fund inspectors will have less stringent and effective powers of oversight. The present panoply of genuinely independent appeals will be missing in the future. Do claimants have a right of audience before the social fund inspector? If not, the whole system is vitiated. That aspect must be considered.

As I understand it, the social fund inspector will be based at a regional office. My regional office is 55 miles away from the local office. If people are to be sent traipsing from Galashiels to Edinburgh for a right of appeal, that will be an entirely regressive and detrimental move.

The Government's amendment talks about publishing a report. I welcome that as far as it goes. Of course, those reports will not be debatable in Parliament. They will be published and go into the ether. It may make interesting reading to see how the reports are handled, but they will not be debated in the House. We should look at that aspect carefully.

This whole matter should be taken essentially on the basis of a question of justice. The Council on Tribunals was right. Although there are some welcome improvements, which the Minister explained, they do not go far enough for me to recommend my right hon. and hon. Friends to support this amendment.

One of the great strengths of the appeal system as we now know it is that decisions are published and people can understand what is going on during the review that takes place under the normal process. Will claimants be given a clear explanation as to how their case was dealt with under the proposed system? Will the key decisions in the reviews be made available more publicly and generally by the Department? It is important for us to be able to measure exactly how the system will work.

These proposals do not go nearly far enough. This is nothing like the independent system that we would support. I recommend my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the Government's proposals.

Photo of Mr Roy Galley Mr Roy Galley , Halifax

One can well understand and fully support the Government's determination not to introduce the full panoply of a quasi judicial appeal procedure such as we have at present. To deal with thousands and thousands of possible claims about small items will require a procedure which is cumbersome, longwinded, expensive, absurd at the margins and cannot be entirely fair and just to those who seek to appeal against decisions. I say that it is absurd at the margins because much time, effort, money and bureaucracy can often be involved in whether somebody should have a hot water bottle, a saucepan, or whatever. Therefore, one can fully understand that one does not wish to have—

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Shadow Minister (Social Security)

I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Does my memory fail me or was it the hon. Gentleman who served on a Committee last year when his hon. Friend the Minister instituted this very judicial system? The hon. Gentleman enthusiastically welcomed it and his hon. Friend the Minister took credit for the Government making the system more judicial at the time.

Photo of Mr Roy Galley Mr Roy Galley , Halifax

That is not the case. That is not what happened last year. If that point is in any way valid, the hon. Lady should have made it long ago because this is a debate that we have had in Committee over a long period. Let me come to what I sought to persuade the Government to do.

One can fully understand that this long-winded procedure, which is not necessarily going to produce good decisions, should not be implemented. Nevertheless, concern has been expressed by many hon. Members on both sides of the House about the need for some form of appeal mechanism. The system, as initially proposed, meant that particular individuals had enormous power and responsibility. Therefore, it was crucial that there was some movement towards an appeal procedure. It should not be the case that one person made the decision and that was the end of the matter.

Therefore, after much debate in Committee and on Report, it was accepted, before the measure went to another place, that there should be an internal review procedure. That meant the possibility of social fund officers reviewing their own decisions, passing those decisions on to other social fund officers and having an inspectorate to monitor the decisions and to which people could appeal. That allayed some of the fears. It meant that there was a second opinion. That was an important concession.

When one looked at the new—[Interruption.] If hon. Gentlemen want to make comments, would they not make them from a sedentary position?

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field , Birkenhead

The hon. Gentleman may not be able to recall last year. However, does he recall the Committee on this Bill in which he was in the vanguard for reforms which would strengthen the appeal system?

Photo of Mr Roy Galley Mr Roy Galley , Halifax

Yes, indeed. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Committee proceedings he will see that the remarks I have made this evening are precisely in tune with what I said during those debates. I said that there had to be a review procedure, and we got a concession towards an internal management review system. The hon. Gentleman should wait until I come to my further point.

With the Government's proposal, we now have the idea of a social fund commissioner. One looks at that and thinks, "Good, we are getting a little further. We will have a social fund ombudsman." That was my first thought. That would have been a good idea. It is important that there should be consistency in decisions in different parts of the country and that the quality of those decisions should be the same in varying circumstances. We should have a quality control mechanism through the social fund commissioner.

However, this is a lost opportunity in not extending the function of the social fund commissioner to an appeal of last resort. It may be that one would need to institute some control upon the range of such appeals, but it would give a further element of independence.

Photo of Mr David Evennett Mr David Evennett , Erith and Crayford

I had the pleasure of serving on the Committee with my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley). I was under the impression that my hon. Friend was advocating that there should be monitoring of the performance of the inspectorate, and that is what we have now.

Photo of Mr Roy Galley Mr Roy Galley , Halifax

My hon. Friend is right. We have agreed on an internal review procedure which is a plus point, and we how have a monitoring of consistency, which is another plus point. All I am suggesting is that we must resist the Lords amendment. I fully support my hon. Friend the Minister in that. However, he may have missed an opportunity to have an appeal of last resort in a social fund commissioner. He could have gone just one step further.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

I am pleased that the other place recognised the importance of continuing an appeals system, which has operated in social security matters for over 50 years. It is interesting to note that the figures show that, between 1981 and 1984, over 25,000 decisions about single payments were challenged by tribunals on appeal. I hope that the Minister will take this on board.

It is important to bear in mind that not only does the system allow an appeal to be made, and many are successful, but decisions are affected by an appeals system. Once a decision has been made and a claimant is dissatisfied and intends to lodge an appeal, the matter is reviewed before the appeal. That is bound to have an effect. It is not likely to continue under the proposed system set out in the Government's new clause.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) mentioned the Council on Tribunals but, because of time, did not quote from what it said. However, I shall do so, because what it said is of the utmost importance. The Council on Tribunals is rarely mentioned in connection with these issues. It said: Very good reasons are needed before the abolition of the right to an independent appeal in such circumstances, an appeal which has existed for over 50 years. It would probably be the most substantial abolition of a right of appeal to an independent tribunal since the Council on Tribunals was set up by Parliament in 1958 following the Franks report. It is for these reasons that we are so critical of the proposal. In our last Annual Report we described it as highly retrograde". That view comes not just from the Opposition but from the Council on Tribunals.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Favell Mr Anthony Favell , Stockport

The Council on Tribunals has an axe to grind. Has it not been made clear that the resources in the social fund are finite? Is it not better for the social fund to be directed towards those in real need rather than lining the pockets of those who sit on appeal tribunals, the secretariat and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all?

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

To a large extent, the hon. Gentleman has given away the reason why there will be no appeal system. He has said frankly what the Minister was reluctant to say. It will be a highly cash limited social fund, the purpose of which is to limit and reduce the amount of money being given — hence no appeals system. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because his intervention was useful.

What is contained in the new clause is no satisfactory alternative to an independent appeals system. The social fund officer will be based in the local office, so he will be in the very office where the decision was first taken against which an appeal is being made. Although the social fund inspector will not be based in the local office, he will be based in the regional office and will be perceived, inevitably, as part of the internal DHSS procedure.

As the new clause says, in the main — perhaps without exception—such inspectors will come from the existing DHSS staff. Does anyone believe, or could they come to accept, that this will be an independent review that will be a satisfactory alternative to the existing system of independent appeal?

I ask questions that I have asked before. Will claimants be seen in the first place by a social fund officer?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

The hon. Gentleman made a curious remark about the fact that the social fund inspectors may come from within the DHSS staff. Is he saying that the adjudication officers, who do the same, do not accurately and properly carry out their functions, because that is the logical conclusion of his remarks?

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

To some extent, my analogy is with the system of appeals in immigration, with which I am familiar. Although the adjudicators are appointed by the Home Office, it is recognised that they are independent, and that is an important difference. It is important that there should be an understanding, a recognition and an acceptance that the people concerned are independent. I do not believe for one moment that the social fund inspectors will be seen in that light.

Will people who say that they are dissatisfied with a decision see the social fund inspector in person? Many of the people with whom we are dealing may not feel adequately able to present their cases. Will they be in a position to go and see the social fund officer, or will such matters be dealt with through paperwork? We must not forget that, under the existing appeals system, people can be represented.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Does my hon. Friend accept that, as the terms of reference for the social fund commissioners are so vague, the only thing that can logically happen is that, as the many discrepancies on decisions of social fund officers arise, cases will end up in the court as a matter of natural justice?

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

My hon. Friend is right.

It is understandable that, with the tainted record of Ministers trying to lessen the amount of money given to the poorest in our community, who desperately need the payments for which they can apply, there is so much suspicion of what is being done. That is why we are justified, like the other place, in voting against the Government's proposal and in believing that the appeal system should continue.

This is a further onslaught on the poor—on those who desperately need the items for which they have applied. The speeches by Conservative Members in previous debates and also in this debate demonstrate what was said a few moments ago: that they believe that the assistance that is being given should be reduced and that the poorest should be further discriminated against and penalised. The policy of this Tory Government is to give to the rich and to take away from those who are most in need.

Photo of Mr David Evennett Mr David Evennett , Erith and Crayford

The social fund came in for a great deal of scrutiny in Standing Committee. Two matters caused concern to hon. Members. Certain hon. Members were in favour of a full appeals procedure, with all the bureaucracy that that entails. Other hon. Members felt that there should be a monitoring system to ensure that inspectors are doing their job correctly. That concern in Committee has been removed to a large degree by the new clause.

Conservative Members welcome the creation of a commissioner who will be responsible for ensuring that inspectors perform their job well. Conservative Members welcome most of all the fact that his report will be published, for it will then be possible to monitor his comments on the system. We do not want a return to the kind of bureaucracy which would result in appeals over minor matters being dealt with at great length. That does not help claimants, or administrators or taxpayers, who have to foot the bill.

I welcome the movement that the Government have made since the Committee stage. Also, I welcome the fact that they have taken on board the concern of some hon. Members about the monitoring of the social fund. The new clause is a vast improvement and it should be supported. We look forward to this radical Bill, which is long overdue, being placed on the statute book.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field , Birkenhead

I should like to make four points in one minute. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) said that tonight the Government have made the crucial point that they are willing to concede independent appeals only to those parts of the scheme that are not cash limited.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) made, as so often happens in these debates, a most pertinent contribution. He said that the use of the word "commissioner" in this context is a sham and that it will be seen to be a sham.

Thirdly, the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley) said that such items as saucepans, clothing and bedding are small items and are of little importance. They may be of little importance to hon. Members, but to all too many of our constituents they are crucial ingredients for a decent standard of living.

Fourthly, even though, with his usual ability, the Minister used his silver tongue to move the amendment, he convinced us all that, if we were asked to write a minute on the working of the new system, if we were honest, we could not do it.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

The concept of a commissioner is somewhat ambiguous, despite the welcome that has been given to it by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett). It is an unknown quantity. Is the commissioner to become a social welfare ombudsman, or is he or she to be simply a chief inspector, or Government inspector? In some ways, the role is analogous to the lay observer in the Scottish legal system. Will he or she be a career civil servant, or will he or she be a member of the Department itself and hence part of the Department's career structure? Is it likely that the successful applicant will be recruited from outwith the Department? Will the commissioner have legal training? Is it likely that he or she will be a Queen's counsel? To my mind, none of those matters is at all clear from what the Minister said when introducing the concept of a commissioner.

The Minister knows the importance of single payments in Scotland vis-a-vis the rest of Great Britain. It is essential for us to have an independent appeals system and this shadowy vague animal, this commissioner, whoever he or she may be, will simply not be good enough for the people I represent. Despite the inefficiencies and the deficiencies of the single payment system, at the moment those people, at least at the back of their minds, trust an independent appeals system. This shadowy commissioner will not be able to earn the trust of people who depend on social welfare incomes in Scotland and in the rest of Great Britain.

Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree

The missing ingredient in the debate is the failure to acknowledge that the system we have is simply not working. In part, that is because of the nature of the system.

It being four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion relating to the Social Security Bill (Allocation of Time), MR. SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to Order this day, to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment:—

Question agreed to.

Lords amendment accordingly disagreed to.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to, some with Special Entry.

Lords amendment: No. 58, in page 43, line 13, at end insert— (11A) A person applying for a social fund payment may appeal to a social security appeal tribunal constituted in accordance with section 97(2) to (2E) of the Social Security Act 1975 against any determination of a social fund officer with respect to the application.(11B) On an appeal under subsection (11A) above the appeal tribunal may—

  1. (a) confirm the determination appealed against;
  2. (b) substitute for that determination any other determination which a social fund officer could have made; or
  3. (c) if the appeal is against a determination under subsection (3) or (4) above, set aside that determination."—[Mr. Newton.]

Motion made, and Question put, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment—[Mr. Fowler.]

The House divided: Ayes 237, Noes 184.

Division No. 277][9.12 pm
AYES
Adley, RobertBuck, Sir Antony
Aitken, JonathanBudgen, Nick
Alexander, RichardBulmer, Esmond
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelBurt, Alistair
Amess, DavidButcher, John
Ancram, MichaelButler, Rt Hon Sir Adam
Arnold, TomButterfill, John
Carlisle, John (Luton N)
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)Carttiss, Michael
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)Cash, William
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Chalker, Mrs Lynda
Baldry, TonyChapman, Sydney
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)Chope, Christopher
Batiste, SpencerChurchill, W. S.
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyClark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Bellingham, HenryClark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Bendall, VivianClarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Benyon, WilliamClegg, Sir Walter
Bevan, David GilroyColvin, Michael
Bitten, Rt Hon JohnCoombs, Simon
Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnCope, John
Blackburn, JohnCorrie, John
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir PeterCouchman, James
Bonsor, Sir NicholasCranborne, Viscount
Boscawen, Hon RobertCrouch, David
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaCurrie, Mrs Edwina
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Dickens, Geoffrey
Boyson, Dr RhodesDorrell, Stephen
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardDouglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Bright, GrahamDover, Den
Brinton, TimDunn, Robert
Brooke, Hon PeterEvennett, David
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)Eyre, Sir Reginald
Bryan, Sir PaulFarr, Sir John
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.Favell, Anthony
Finsberg, Sir GeoffreyMcCurley, Mrs Anna
Fletcher, AlexanderMacfarlane, Neil
Fookes, Miss JanetMacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Forman, NigelMacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)Maclean, David John
Forth, EricMcLoughlin, Patrick
Fowler, Rt Hon NormanMcNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Franks, CecilMadel, David
Fraser, Peter (Angus East)Major, John
Freeman, RogerMalins, Humfrey
Fry, PeterMalone, Gerald
Gale, RogerMaples, John
Galley, RoyMarland, Paul
Gardiner, George (Reigate)Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)Mates, Michael
Garel-Jones, TristanMather, Carol
Glyn, Dr AlanMawhinney, Dr Brian
Goodhart, Sir PhilipMayhew, Sir Patrick
Goodlad, AlastairMerchant, Piers
Gow, IanMiller, Hal (B'grove)
Gower, Sir RaymondMiscampbell, Norman
Grant, Sir AnthonyMoate, Roger
Greenway, HarryMontgomery, Sir Fergus
Gregory, ConalMoynihan, Hon C.
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)Murphy, Christopher
Grylls, MichaelNeale, Gerrard
Gummer, Rt Hon John SNeedham, Richard
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)Neubert, Michael
Hampson, Dr KeithNewton, Tony
Hannam, JohnNicholls, Patrick
Hargreaves, KennethNorris, Steven
Harris, DavidOnslow, Cranley
Haselhurst, AlanOppenheim, Phillip
Havers, Rt Hon Sir MichaelOppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.
Hawkins, C. (High Peak)Osborn, Sir John
Hawkins, Sir Paul (N'folk SW)Ottaway, Richard
Hawksley, WarrenPage, Sir John (Harrow W)
Hayes, J.Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Hayhoe, Rt Hon BarneyParkinson, Rt Hon Cecil
Hayward, RobertPatten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn)
Heathcoat-Amory, DavidPattie, Geoffrey
Heddle, JohnPawsey, James
Hickmet, RichardPeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Hill, JamesPollock, Alexander
Hind, KennethPorter, Barry
Hirst, MichaelPortillo, Michael
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)Powley, John
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Hordern, Sir PeterPrice, Sir David
Howard, MichaelProctor, K. Harvey
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)Raffan, Keith
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N)Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Jenkin, Rt Hon PatrickRifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Jessel, TobyRoe, Mrs Marion
Johnson Smith, Sir GeoffreyRossi, Sir Hugh
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Rost, Peter
Jones, Robert (Herts W)Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Jopling, Rt Hon MichaelSt. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs ElaineSims, Roger
Kershaw, Sir AnthonySkeet, Sir Trevor
Key, RobertSmith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
King, Roger (B'ham N'field)Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
King, Rt Hon TomSoames, Hon Nicholas
Knight, Greg (Derby N)Steen, Anthony
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)Stern, Michael
Lang, IanStewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Lawler, GeoffreyTaylor, John (Solihull)
Lawrence, IvanTebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Lee, John (Pendle)Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkThorne, Neil (Word S)
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)Thurnham, Peter
Lightbown, DavidTownsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Lilley, PeterViggers, Peter
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Lord, MichaelWalker, Bill (T'side N)
Luce, Rt Hon RichardWall, Sir Patrick
Lyell, NicholasWardle, C. (Bexhill)
Watson, JohnWood, Timothy
Watts, John
Wells, Bowen (Hertford)Tellers for the Ayes:
Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)Mr. Tony Durant and
Wheeler, JohnMr. Francis Maude.
Wiggin, Jerry
NOES
Alton, DavidEvans, John (St. Helens N)
Anderson, DonaldEwing, Harry
Archer, Rt Hon PeterFatchett, Derek
Ashdown, PaddyField, Frank (Birkenhead)
Ashley, Rt Hon JackFields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)
Ashton, JoeFisher, Mark
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)Flannery, Martin
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Barnett, GuyForrester, John
Barron, KevinFoster, Derek
Beckett, Mrs MargaretFoulkes, George
Beith, A. J.Fraser, J. (Norwood)
Bell, StuartFreeson, Rt Hon Reginald
Benn, Rt Hon TonyFreud, Clement
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)Garrett, W. E.
Bermingham, GeraldGeorge, Bruce
Blair, AnthonyGilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Boothroyd, Miss BettyGodman, Dr Norman
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n)Golding, Mrs Llin
Boyes, RolandGourlay, Harry
Bray, Dr JeremyHamilton, W. W. (Fife Central)
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)Hancock, Michael
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)Hardy, Peter
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)Harman, Ms Harriet
Buchan, NormanHarrison, Rt Hon Walter
Caborn, RichardHart, Rt Hon Dame Judith
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)Heffer, Eric S.
Campbell-Savours, DaleHogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Carter-Jones, LewisHolland, Stuart (Vauxhall)
Cartwright, JohnHome Robertson, John
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)Hoyle, Douglas
Clarke, ThomasHughes, Dr Mark (Durham)
Clay, RobertHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Clelland, David GordonHughes, Roy (Newport East)
Clwyd, Mrs AnnHughes, Simon (Southwark)
Cohen, HarryJanner, Hon Greville
Coleman, DonaldJohn, Brynmor
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)Johnston, Sir Russell
Corbett, RobinJones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Corbyn, JeremyKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Craigen, J. M.Kirkwood, Archy
Crowther, StanLambie, David
Cunliffe, LawrenceLeadbitter, Ted
Dalyell, TamLeighton, Ronald
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)Livsey, Richard
Deakins, EricLloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Dewar, DonaldLofthouse, Geoffrey
Dixon, DonaldLoyden, Edward
Dobson, FrankMcDonald, Dr Oonagh
Dormand, JackMcKay, Allen (Penistone)
Douglas, DickMcKelvey, William
Dubs, AlfredMacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Duffy, A. E. P.Maclennan, Robert
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.McTaggart, Robert
Eadie, AlexMcWilliam, John
Eastham, KenMadden, Max
Edwards, Bob (W'h'mpt'n SE)Marek, Dr John
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Shields, Mrs Elizabeth
Martin, MichaelShore, Rt Hon Peter
Maynard, Miss JoanShort, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Meacher, MichaelShort, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)
Michie, WilliamSilkin, Rt Hon J.
Mikardo, IanSkinner, Dennis
Millan, Rt Hon BruceSmith, Rt Hon J. (M'ds E)
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)Snape, Peter
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)Soley, Clive
Nellist, DavidSpearing, Nigel
Oakes, Rt Hon GordonStewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
O'Brien, WilliamStott, Roger
O'Neill, MartinStrang, Gavin
Orme, Rt Hon StanleyStraw, Jack
Owen, Rt Hon Dr DavidThomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Park, GeorgeThomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Parry, RobertThompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Patched, TerryThorne, Stan (Preston)
Pavitt, LaurieTinn, James
Pendry, TomTorney, Tom
Pike, PeterWainwright, R.
Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Radice, GilesWareing, Robert
Randall, StuartWeetch, Ken
Raynsford, NickWelsh, Michael
Redmond, MartinWigley, Dafydd
Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)Williams, Rt Hon A.
Richardson, Ms JoWilson, Gordon
Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)Winnick, David
Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)Woodall, Alec
Rogers, AllanWrigglesworth, Ian
Rooker, J. W.Young, David (Bolton SE)
Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)
Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)Tellers for the Noes:
Rumbold, Mrs AngelaMr. James Hamilton and
Sedgemore, BrianMr. Ron Davies.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment accordingly disagreed to.

Government amendments (a) to (p) in lieu of Lords amendment No. 58 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 57 disagreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to, some with Special Entry.

Ordered,That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments.— [Mr. Fowler.]

Ordered,That Mrs. Margaret Beckett, Mr. Secretary Fowler, Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd, Mr. John Major and Mr. Michael Meacher, be Members of the Committee.—[Mr. Fowler.]

Ordered,That three be the Quorum of the Committee. — [Mr. Fowler.]

Ordered,That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—[Mr. Fowler.] Reasons for disagreeing to certain of the Lords amendments reported, and agreed to;to be communicated to the Lords.