New Clause 1

Welfare Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 3rd March 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Ambit of appeals under section 20 of the 1991 Act

‘(1) Section 20 of the Child Support Act 1991 (c. 48) (appeals to appeal tribunals) is amended as follows.

(2) Subsection 7(b) (appeal tribunals not to take into account any circumstances not obtaining at the time when the Secretary of State made the decision or imposed the requirement) is omitted.’.—(Mr. Harper.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The purpose of the new clause, which we have discussed with Gingerbread, would enable child support appeal tribunals, when considering child support appeals, to consider all matters up to the date of the hearing. The present position under section 20(7)(b) is that a tribunal is not allowed to take into account any circumstances that did not exist at the time when the decision under appeal was made. That rule effectively came through from social security legislation.

The reason why child maintenance appeals are problematic is partly that it takes so long for cases to be determined by a tribunal after an appeal. The information supplied to me by Gingerbread—it was obtained from the Department for Work and Pensions; the Minister may or may not be able to confirm its accuracy—suggests that it takes about 33 weeks. On average, 11 weeks elapse between the submission of an appeal to the Child Support Agency and the passing of the papers to the Tribunals Service. Once the papers are received by the Tribunals Service, on average just under 22 weeks elapses. The problem, which can affect both the parent with care and the non-resident parent, is that circumstances often change before the appeal is heard.

To provide a specific example, after the decision has been made someone’s income or job circumstances could change and the appeal tribunal would then be making a decision based on a set of facts that no longer exists. That can take place over 33 weeks, which is the best part of a year. In respect of child maintenance it would be much better if the appeal tribunal could look at the present position and reach a decision about the level of child maintenance with some finality.

This is a relatively simple point and it is worth testing the Minister on whether the Government think that it has any merit in child maintenance cases. I am not suggesting that we adopt the process for social security benefit cases—effectively, that is where the idea stems from—but we should certainly do so for child maintenance cases. With the delay in the system, it makes sense for the appeal tribunal to be able to take into account all the relevant information up to the date of the appeal, so that it can make a better decision that is more likely to be final; otherwise, the process may need to be repeated because the information has changed. That streamlining measure would help both the parent with care and the non-resident parent get to some form of closure. Will the Minister think about this matter?

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I understand why the hon. Gentleman tabled the amendment. He has done so because of the long time it takes to hear appeals. However, in seeking to deal with one problem he would be creating another.

The solution to the problem is to ensure that CMEC, the new body, deals with such matters a lot quicker than the Child Support Agency currently does. The information that a court or an appeal tribunal has to deal with cannot be constantly changing. There must be a fixed reference point at which all information is put before a tribunal, at which point that becomes the information that the tribunal is dealing with. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman and the Minister that the solution to the problem—and there is a problem—is not to allow late information, but to tackle the time it takes to consider appeals through the tribunal.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

For the first time I agree with what the hon. Member for Rochdale has said. It is nice, as we enter the final stages of consideration of the Bill, that there should be some harmony in the Committee.

If the appeal system is taking too long, that is a matter for the judicial system. I agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean that we need to try to sort out the length of time the process takes, although I do not recognise the figures he used. Presumably, the lower the number of errors made by CMEC, the lower the number of appeals, and therefore the less likely this situation is to occur. We can judge from the verifiable figures that the CSA is producing that the amount of maintenance that it is collecting was rising over £1 billion last year. The number of unprocessed applications has fallen dramatically to 55,000—that is still too high, although it used to be 280,000—so we hope that things are moving in the right direction.

There are two immediate problems with the new clause. It could cause more delays because the tribunal would have to look at more information, which fluctuated over time. Therefore, we could get into the perverse situation in which the tribunal was taking so long that there was more new information. That would be costly for the taxpayer—more so than if the decision making on the award remained with the commission. If the tribunal took new information into account and made a decision, it is worrying that the non-resident parent would lose their right of appeal, whereas if the decision rests with CMEC, there is a right of appeal. Therefore it is right and proper to follow the design of the social security legislation and leave the decisions with CMEC, which can be appealed on a point of law only, to a tribunal with a snapshot of the situation at that time.

If there is new information, it is still the commission’s right to withdraw the hearing so that the appeal lapses, and to simply revise the award based on that new information in parallel with an appeal process concerned with a point of law. In a sense, it becomes hypothetical whether the underlying decision has been changed. It raises an interesting question but we cannot accept the new clause.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 12:15 pm, 3rd March 2009

Will the Minister furnish the Committee with the information about delays that I told her about, which was supplied to Gingerbread by the Department for Work and Pensions and covered child support appeals between April and December 2008? It was 11 weeks between the appeal by the CSA and the papers going to the Tribunals Service and just under 22 weeks’ clearance time for an appeal by the Tribunals Service. The Minister  said that she did not recognise the numbers, and I accept that they may not be accurate. Can she furnish the Committee with accurate information?

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

Not off the top of my head, but I will write to the Committee before Report to clarify those data.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to the Minister for pledging to share that information. It will be helpful. The hon. Member for Rochdale, in his outbreak of harmony, was correct; it would be better if both the CSA and CMEC were swifter. [Interruption.] I thought that the Minister had finished.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. Yes, she did finish and this is the response to the Minister.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I thought that was what had happened. Thank you for clarifying that, Mr. Hood. The Minister was good to set things out. It would be beneficial if CMEC made more accurate decisions in the first place and fewer were appealed. If CMEC and the Tribunals Service dealt with appealed decisions more swiftly, the problems would be minimised. We do not have the power to do that by tabling new clauses, but doing so has enabled the hon. Member for Rochdale to make his points and I support him.

When the Minister supplies us with the information, it will be helpful to see what the delays are. The Minister’s best argument—and why I will not press the new clause to a Division—was about how taking decision making away from CMEC would effectively remove the right to appeal. On reflection, I think that the Minister has made a good point. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.