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My Lords, I again thank the Minister for introducing the regulations. I wish him well in dealing with those incisive inquiries from my noble friend Lady Lister about the monthly assessment, the monthly payment and supported housing. She gave us a very powerful analysis.
We acknowledge that an updated framework for decisions and appeals that encompasses universal credit, PIP, JSA and ESA is needed. As the Minister will doubtless anticipate, there are two key matters that we will pursue, mirroring those discussed in the other place: mandatory reconsideration and the payment of benefits in the interim. Noble Lords will recall the debates that we had in Committee and on Report on the Welfare Reform Bill on what has ended up as Section 102 of the Act, and a degree of scepticism about why it was necessary to have two powers when a power was already available to decision-makers to revise a decision prior to the determination of appeal. However, we are where are, with two time limits within the system. If a claimant disagrees with a decision, they have one month to ask for a reconsideration. When the result of that is known, they will have one month from the date of the new decision to appeal.
As the Minister has identified, there is no statutory time within which decision-makers are obligated to complete a reconsideration. This is important because it reflects on how long a claimant's interim benefit position will endure. We therefore register our concerns about the strictness of the time limits imposed on claimants in the current climate.
My noble friend Lord Bach gave a tour de force speech about the current situation, in which legal aid is being denied and advice agencies are being stretched and hit with redundancies and closures. We received last Friday the Universal Credit Local Support Services Framework, with not enough time to peruse it in any detail for today. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether its envisaged remit will include advice on a decision or a reconsideration. Will the local support services be available to advise and assist on that? Of course, this pressure on advice surgeries is compounded by the raft of changes that we have discussed today and will doubtless continue to discuss, and which are about to enter the system shortly. Can the Minister say something about any discretion that might available in respect of the time limits imposed by the provision?
It is understood that benefit entitlement pending a reconsideration will be on hold. I think that is what the Minister said: that if someone is seeking a benefit for the first time, they will be left without benefit if and until the claim is settled positively. For those claiming ESA and going through a reconsideration process, this would appear to herald the change. Is it not the case that an ESA claimant will currently be paid at the assessment rate equivalent to the JSA rate pending a reconsideration and appeal? Will the Minister confirm that this will not be the case in the future? The remedy in the short term, as has been suggested, appears to be a claim for JSA in due course where contributory ESA is involved, presumably a claim for universal credit. This appears to be what the Minister still advises. How does that deal with the point that this may require an individual to sign up to a claimant commitment and undertake work for which they are not suited?
Can the Minister please confirm the position for someone in receipt of ESA who, on a reassessment under the WCA, is assessed as being fit for work or subject to all work-related requirements? If someone who is currently on ESA and at risk of being downgraded to universal credit or JSA is subjected to the reconsideration appeal process, what benefit is paid before that appeal is concluded?
These questions touch on the timeliness of the reconsideration process. It is accepted that if a reconsideration and appeal process is successful, any due award will be backdated to the original claim, but that does not help the claimant in the interim. My honourable friend Anne McGuire MP made the point in another place that where high levels of appeals are successful, such as on ESA and DLA, a protracted reconsideration and appeals process will disadvantage claimants, driving them into debt and into the arms of the food banks.
We note that the Government have declined to place time limits on the reconsideration process-the Minister confirmed that tonight-but it seems from their response to the public consultation on mandatory consideration that they will consider making proposals for an interim performance indicator. Perhaps, therefore, I can take the opportunity to repeat some questions posed by my honourable friend Anne McGuire that remain unanswered. What do the Government envisage as the standard length of time for a revision prior to appeal? Will customers be told how long they should expect to wait? What action can be taken if projected timescales are exceeded, and will the department monitor and publish statistics on waiting times for appeal?
"Alongside implementation of this power, we intend to make further improvements to the reconsideration process, which will include suitable arrangements for monitoring and, where appropriate, improving the speed of the process".-[Official Report,
Perhaps we can be told what progress has been made on that.
Finally, I ask a question about the routine publication of appeals data-again going back to our debates on the Welfare Reform Act. At one stage, I think it was envisaged that they would be a cessation of the routine publication of those data. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that that is not the case.
We do not oppose the regulations, but we need to monitor them closely to see that their implementation does not create unfairness.