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Clause 5 - Applications and procedure

Mesothelioma Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 12th December 2013.

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Photo of Stephen Phillips Stephen Phillips Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 11:30 am, 12th December 2013

I beg to move amendment 23, in clause 5, page 3, line 30, after ‘evidence’, insert

‘including the disapplication of strict rules of evidence.’.

Clause 5 deals with applications and procedure for the administration of the scheme. Subsection (1)(c) indicates that the scheme may make provision with regard to evidence. What is important about the scheme—this point has been made by the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East and other members of the Committee—is that those whom it is intended to benefit should receive the compensation, which they have for far too long been denied, without having to go through too many formal requirements. In such circumstances, it is obviously sensible that the scheme not only should be able to make provision about evidence, but should not become a quasi or pseudo-court proceeding.

My amendment would enable the scheme to make provision not only about evidence, but to disapply the strict rules of evidence. What I have in mind—the Minister might give suitable assurances in any event—is that the proceedings before the scheme administrator,  whether they are in writing or howsoever they take place, should not become some sort of trial and should not involve lawyers in lengthy legal argument for which they would be able to justify the fee that we have previously discussed. The process should run as smoothly and quickly as possible without the need for the strict rules of evidence that would apply in the civil courts. In such circumstances, it would be appropriate for the scheme to make provision that the strict rules of evidence should not apply. The Minister might say—I hope that he will—that subsection (1)(c) will permit that in any event. If he is able to say that, I will be happy to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Davies. I want to raise a slightly different issue regarding provision about evidence. I recently wrote to the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury regarding my worries about recent changes to the requests procedure for employment schedules for deceased persons. Evidence of employment is one of the elements that will have to be considered by the scheme administrator or the technical committee when determining whether someone is eligible to access the scheme.

On 12 November, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs published a new policy on applications for employment schedules for deceased persons, indicating that a court order will be required. Until that point, all that had been needed was the completion of a simple application form. Clearly, the implications of that change give rise to a number of concerns regarding mesothelioma sufferers. Given the long latency of the disease, a crucial aspect of any mesothelioma claims procedure is the attempted identification of previous employers and their insurers, which necessarily frequently requires the release of an employment schedule.

As we know, mesothelioma is invariably terminal, and sufferers die very quickly after diagnosis, so we cannot really hang about on ensuring that the victim—or if they have, sadly, died, his or her successors—obtains the employment schedule. Changes by HMRC to the procedure for requesting the employment history of deceased persons may therefore have a considerable and adverse impact on mesothelioma sufferers and their families.

As I said, I wrote last month to the Exchequer Secretary requesting clarification of the factors driving the changes to the request process. In anticipation of this debate, my office made several attempts this week to expedite a response from the Exchequer Secretary’s private office, but we had not received anything when I left my office first thing this morning.

I have asked for details of any consultations or impact assessments that have been undertaken before the implementation of the changes and whether the specific circumstances of mesothelioma sufferers can be, or have been, taken into consideration. In addition, I have asked for clarification of how the changes have been reconciled with the objectives of the Ministry of Justice review to streamline and simplify the claims procedure.

I appreciate that the issue is not part of the Minister’s direct remit, and I very much hoped that I would have received a satisfactory response from the Exchequer Secretary so that I would not need to trouble the  Minister or the Committee with the matter. I will be happy if the Minister will offer to expedite a response from HMRC so that we have time to consider it while we are still in Committee or, if not, by the time we debate the Bill on Report. In expectation of that assurance, I shall not challenge the clause, but I hope the Minister will do what he can to get the answer we need.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

First, let me address the shadow Minister’s quite understandable concerns. My officials and MOJ officials have been meeting Treasury officials to discuss this matter. This is a piece of Government legislation and, as the hon. Lady can imagine, we do not want any hiccups in implementing it. We will get some answers on the issues she raised as soon as we can. If I cannot get them today, I will make sure that I or my neighbour, the Exchequer Secretary, get an answer to her. I am with him tomorrow, and my officials and I will nudge him.

I can give my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham the assurance he wants. We desperately do not want to replicate strict court processes in the guidance we give the administrator, so we have disapplied the rules, and that will be set out in the guidance. The whole principle is that we want to expedite access to the fund.

Photo of Stephen Phillips Stephen Phillips Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.