Select Committee on Social Security Sixth Report


Reductions in workload

  19. In the longer term, a reduction in the number of claims will have significant implications for the work of the Agency. The reductions in workload should, however, be put in context. More claims were received in 1998/99 than in any of the twenty years prior to 1988.[56] Equally, on 31 March 1999 there were more war pensions in payment than there were at any point in the mid-1980s.[57] The recent decline in workload must be seen in the context of the large number of claims made from 1991 to 1995.[58] These claims were largely related to noise induced sensorineural hearing loss.[59] Nevertheless, there has been a decline in the Agency's workload. Following significant reductions in the claims intake, staff numbers were reduced by means of a voluntary retirement scheme in March 1998.[60] The number of staff employed by the Agency has fallen dramatically in recent years. In 1994 there were 1,646 staff in post. By 1998 this figure had fallen to 958.[61] Statistical forecasts indicate a continuing trend of reductions in claims and appeals which requires staffing resources to be kept under review.[62] The Chief Executive expressed confidence that if workloads decline gradually as the statisticians forecast any necessary staffing reductions would be contained within normal wastage rates.[63]

20. There are some concerns about the effect of the recent cuts in staff numbers on the work of the Agency. The Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society told the Committee that staffing is now at a level where cuts would undoubtedly come with the severe risk of a deterioration in service.[64] The Burma Star Association told us that "a lot of work experience is being lost with the introduction of early retirement schemes."[65] On this latter point, Mr Hextall conceded that expertise was lost towards the end of 1997-98 when approximately 200 staff left the Agency. He added that expertise had not been lost since.[66] On the wider question of the impact of reductions in staff numbers, it is clear to us that managing the changing workload of the Agency efficiently whilst retaining the high level of service which is currently provided is one of the key challenges facing the Chief Executive and staff of the War Pensions Agency. We consider it unfortunate that significant expertise was lost by the War Pensions Agency in 1997-98 through the introduction of an early retirement scheme. There are lessons to be learned form the experience of the Agency by other parts of the public sector about the importance of retaining experienced staff during periods of change.

21. The Public and Commercial Services Union WPA Group Executive Committee told us that staffing issues was a core concern for the Union.[67] The Executive Committee expressed the view that the "unsurpassed wealth of knowledge and experience" of the Agency should be utilised in any future arrangements from the Prior Options Review.[68] The Chief Executive stressed that employees need not be too concerned about any change in the administrative arrangements of War Pensions:

    "Whoever we report to in the end the job still has to be done. The day-to-day work of the agency in processing claims and dealing with appeals and answering enquiries all has to be done."[69]

22. Staff concerns about the future of the Agency may provide a partial explanation for the relatively high level of sickness absence in the War Pensions Agency. In 1998 14.6 days were lost per person on average. This was an improvement on the previous two years but is still unacceptably high.[70] The Chief Executive explained that this relatively high level was for a number of reasons: the increase in workload in the early 1990s; the setting up of a new Agency; the introduction of new management structures and a new computer system; and the reduction in staff numbers.[71] Mr Hextall outlined the steps being taken to improve staff morale generally[72] and to encourage people who have been away from work to return.[73] The Agency's aim "to provide an environment that encourages, supports and values people" is one which we applaud. Providing such an environment will be essential if the Agency is to achieve its Secretary of State target for 1999/2000 of reducing sickness levels by 7 per cent.[74] The Agency's supplementary memorandum outlined a number of steps being taken to reduce long-term absence.[75]

56   Ev. p.39. Back

57   Ev. p.39. Back

58   Ev. p.39. Back

59   Q 36. Back

60   Ev. p.3, para.1.11. Back

61   Ev. p.41, para.3.2. Back

62   Ev. p.3, para. 1.12. Back

63   Q 82. Back

64   Appendix 3, para. 3. Back

65   Appendix 6, para. 3. Back

66   Q 77,78. Back

67   Appendix 9. Back

68   Appendix 9. Back

69   Q 75. Back

70   Ev. p.41, para. 3.2. Back

71   Q 86,87. Back

72   Q 89. Back

73   Q 90. Back

74   Ev. p.15, Annex E. Back

75   Ev. p.41, para. 3.3. Back

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Prepared 23 June 1999