Clause 169 - Investigation by Board of complaints of maladministration

Pensions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 20th April 2004.

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Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

I beg your pardon. You are moving as fast as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary did in the marathon.

I beg to move amendment No. 528, in

clause 169, page 107, line 13, at beginning insert 'alleging'.

The amendment requires the word ''alleging'' to be added to subsection (2). Although it appears to be a minor amendment, it is required to place the intention of the clause beyond doubt. Without it, the clause could be interpreted to mean that it is necessary for maladministration to have been proved before referring a complaint to the board. The amendment makes it clear that it is alleged maladministration complaints that are to be referred for consideration. Once such a complaint has been received by the board, the normal two-stage internal review procedures commence.

Amendment agreed to.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I have no problem with the amendment that we have just made, as it seems eminently sensible. However, I have a difficulty with the whole principle of whether the board should investigate questions of maladministration, and there are two broad reasons why.

To refer back to clause 168 and the question of reviewable matters, if there is to be a review—we have already debated whether that should be the case—it makes sense to have a set of reviewable matters and circumstances that can be addressed in that way, and to set it all out in secondary legislation, if not in the clause itself. My feeling is that we are discussing administrative failings—often minor ones—that can easily be cleared up. The Minister did not say anything like that, but I think that there was a slight implication that many of these matters could be dealt with easily, because once the board, or the sub-committee of the board, examined them, or perhaps, even before things reached that stage, it would be clear that there had been an error. Such an error might be considered minor from the board's point of view, but for the person at the other end it could be life-destroying. However, that is another issue; here we are dealing with a question of maladministration.

In a while I will argue that it might not be sensible to have a PPF ombudsman at all. There is much to be said for giving responsibilities to the existing ombudsman, who has built up a large body of experience. Why do we need yet another ombudsman? However, we will come to that issue later. A whole body of law, practice and procedure concerning maladministration has been built up from the original ombudsman—the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is, I think, the technical title—whose post was set up some decades ago. Initially, there was much to-ing and fro-ing about what ''maladministration'' meant. I think that the technical definition is maladministration leading to injustice, but the ombudsman has clarified much of that.

The fact that there is somebody that one can go to when one feels that one has been badly treated by the system has produced a great benefit to society. The first ombudsman spawned a range of mini-ombudsmen and ombudswomen and other people to whom one can go if one has a beef with local government, financial services or whatever. That principle is well established, as is the body of law and practice for dealing with maladministration. I am not sure that it is fair to ask the board, or any sort of sub-construct of the board, to get up to speed on questions of maladministration.

Those are separate matters—or at least I assume they are, because they are in a different clause—from those set out under clause 168. I am not entirely clear whether the internal procedures under clause 169—this again is an internal way of dealing with complaints—will be the same as, or comparable with, those in clause 168. If they are, in principle this is a four-tier system:

there is a two-stage review within the board or its sub-committee, then there is the ombudsman, and then there is the possibility of going to court on a point of law.

Although my arguments on clause 168 were thought not to be substantial enough to change the idea of having a review, it seems to me that there is a powerful freestanding argument that matters of alleged maladministration should not be for the board, although the board will have to comment when the ombudsman makes a judgment. Having dealt with the ombudsman, it is my impression that it has a two-tier process of its own. We write on behalf of a constituent, the constituent sets out their beef and we pass it on, perhaps with our own comments. Then a case handler, or someone similar, examines whether there is a prima facie case before the matter goes the full distance—if, in the light of the Under-Secretary's success at the weekend, I may use that expression.

Why not go straight to the ombudsman in the first place? There is a question about whether we need a totally separate new ombudsman, and we will address that when we discuss clause 170. Clause 169 addresses a state of affairs different from the matters mentioned in clause 168, which deals with reviewable matters, which are largely mechanistic and administrative issues that arise when people feel that the wrong decision has been made or a decision has not been made when one should have been. Clause 169, however, is about people alleging that they have sustained injustice in consequence of maladministration. That is a different order of seriousness. I can see no point in the board having to use its own resources to build up expertise in dealing with serious complaints. Those complaints will, by definition, be serious and they should be dealt with under the ombudsman system—or, at least, under an ombudsman system.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman has argued his point, and I suppose that the word ''maladministration'' can conjure up a variety of sins. I do not think it is uncommon for both statutory and non-statutory organisations, public and private, to have internal systems and means of reviewing decisions, including those that involve maladministration—indeed, I would have thought that that is typical. I had better not say that some maladministration may be of a trivial character, but we are not necessarily talking about the greatest of errors. An error may have been made, and things may have been maladministered, and that will need to be corrected.

The two-stage internal review process that we have discussed this morning is a reasonable way of dealing with that situation, but there is the important safeguard of being able to go to the ombudsman in appropriate circumstances when people are not convinced that the internal review has produced the proper result.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

The problem with what the Minister is saying is that this will not be simply a matter of

maladministration; it will have to amount to someone sustaining injustice, which takes it to a different level.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

In that case, we have the process, which I thought the hon. Gentleman was charging with being complex, whereby one can go to the ombudsman's office and from there, as is usual on a point of law, go to court. I do not think that I have convinced the hon. Gentleman, but I think that our two-stage process will meet any points that arise.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 169, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.