Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Suffolk County Council (AP 2)

  This short Memorandum of Evidence is submitted to this Committee to assist its enquiry into the new social security appeal system.

  Social Services Departments deliver a range of services to some of the poorest and most socially excluded people in our community. Both the range and adequacy of social security benefits as well as effective benefits administration are important elements in ensuring that social care and health services to such people are not undermined.

  Because of this, social workers and other staff employed by Social Services Departments often act as advocates for their customers to ensure they receive the correct benefit entitlement. Many Social Services Departments also have Welfare Rights Units to assist with this. In Suffolk the Welfare Rights Unit is a second tier, strategic service which helps social workers to respond adequately to social security problems through training, consultation and policy work. The Unit also undertakes benefit take up initiatives and represents approximately 80 claimants each year before Social Security Tribunals.

  We hope that the following points will assist the Committee in its enquiry.

  1.  We have considerable concerns about the new timescales for appeals. For people whose lives are complicated and stressed, the one month time limit (particularly when the decision has been notified by second class post), and the difficulties in obtaining independent welfare rights advice mean that a longer time limit should be considered.

  2.  The difficulty with time limits is severely compounded by the absurdly tight rules for admitting a late appeal. It would be interesting to know the numbers of late appeals which have been admitted within the last year.

  3.  We are also concerned about the timescales for revisions of decisions. Effectively, these can amount to a licence for poor administration by the Benefits Agency because of the difficulty many claimants face in finding high quality advice to uncover official errors—some of which go back a long time and involve a substantial amount of money.

  4.  A further concern on timescales is the 14 day time limit for claimants when Tribunals wish to strike out appeals.

  5.  A constant problem has been the standard of medical reports enclosed with Tribunal papers. Often, these are illegible and do not contain a summary of the critical facts. This effectively acts as a barrier to justice.

  6.  We are concerned about a Circular issued by the Benefits Agency in February instructing their staff to only issue one copy of appeal papers. In those cases where there is no representative, the papers are sent to the claimant. Where there is a representative, he/she receives the papers. This puts an additional burden on organisations involved in representation (which are often small, under-funded voluntary organisations) in copying the papers for claimants. This change also appears to have been introduced without proper consultation with representatives.

  7.  A long-standing problem is the administrative chaos within the Independent Tribunal Service. Until about three years ago the ITS appeared to be a well-managed and flexible organisation. However, things deteriorated and one is left with the impression that the service is in a chronic shambles possibly because of under-resourcing. This is exemplified by the unacceptable delays for Tribunal hearings and continual problems with lost files and correspondence. These delays effectively amount to a denial of justice for people who are often in very difficult circumstances. These defeat the objective of Tribunals where time should be of the essence. Clearly, there appears to be an imbalance in that claimants are now faced with strict timescales for submitting appeals and revision requests whereas the Secretary of State is under no statutory obligation to process appeals within any timescale let alone a short one.

  8.  We are also concerned about the very limited training that appears to have been given to most Benefits Agency staff about the new arrangements for appeals.

  9.  As part of its financial difficulties, the Independent Tribunal Service has closed many local Tribunal venues. For example, in this area we lost the Tribunal suite in Bury St Edmunds about two years ago. This is an additional burden for claimants and again amounts to a further imposition in terms of travel time and cost for advice agencies. The Committee may wish to explore the possibility of recommending changes in the law to ensure that reasonably local access to Tribunals is maintained.

  We hope that these comments will assist the Committee in its deliberations.

May 1999

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