Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Lancashire County Council Welfare Rights and Social Inclusion Services (AP 7)

  Lancashire County Council Welfare Rights Service was established in 1987 and exists to serve the 1.1 million residents of Lancashire. Our purpose is to ensure that all those who need advice and help to obtain Social Security and local authority benefits to which they are entitled are able to get it. We have a centralised benefit take-up team as well as six local offices, and 24 satellite outposts, distributed around the County to achieve this aim. We have extensive benefit casework experience, with annually approximately 60,000 advice transactions and we provide help with over 2,000 Social Security appeals. It is with this background that we welcome the opportunity to contribute to the short inquiry into the impending reorganisation of Social Security appeals.

  Whilst we welcome some of the improvements that are planned for the future administration of Social Security appeals, especially those relating to the speeding up of the process for appellants, we do have concerns about some current practices which if allowed to continue will undermine the Government's objective to improve customer service. Just focusing on delivery of a "simpler, faster system for the administration and progressing of appeals" (to quote a recent DMA leaflet) is not enough. Appellants must believe that the system is fair.

  1.  We have already experienced one real difference with the division of the administration of appeals between the Benefits Agency and the Independent Tribunal Service. Under new arrangements in place since April, local Benefits Agency offices have taken over the photocopying and distribution of appeal documents. Offices in Lancashire are only making one copy of these documents available, even in cases where the appellant has a named representative. As previously stated, we currently represent and assist over 2,000 appellants a year. Sharing one set of documents in predominately evidential appeals is unfair to the appellant because, in the interests of justice, they need to be able to see the basis of the decision appealed against (and the evidence that has been used to support that decision). We, as representatives, also have a need to see the documents in order to help the appellant prepare their case.

  It is fairer to have both the appellant and the representative working together in the preparation of an appeal, with a set of appeal documents each. For example, only the appellant can really identify whether there are inaccuracies in the Benefits Agency's evidence or medical reports. Prior to the April changes, the Independent Tribunal Service accepted this and sent a copy of appeal documents to all parties to the appeal, including any named representative. We, like other agencies offering appeal representation, do not have the resources to photocopy over 2,000 sets of appeal documents a year (some of which can be over 100 pages long). This issue is central to the effective administration of appeals. Good administration, in our experience, underpins the fairness or otherwise of the appeals system. An effective appeals system also needs to ensure that appellants are not disadvantaged.

  2.  Liaison regarding appeal hearing dates is another major area of concern for our Service. Regulations allow all parties to an appeal, including the appellant's representative, to be heard at an oral hearing. However, the current administration system can deny the appellant their right to attend with the representative of their choice. For example, if notifications have already been issued advising that a Welfare Rights Officer is not available for appeal representation on a certain dates and this has been ignored, some of our customers have felt unfairly treated when they have had to go ahead with the appeal without representation. Our Tribunal Service Regional Office do not normally postpone an appeal hearing if a representative is not available. When we did have a liaison agreement, it was to the benefit of all concerned—not just the appellant. For example, some Tribunal Chairs have also expressed the view, mainly in cases involving legal technicalities, that the interests of justice would be best served if the appellant attended with an experienced representative—and have adjourned the hearing, directing that this be the case. Written submissions, although helpful, cannot cover the unexpected—ie new information that arises during the course of the hearing. Adjournments in certain of our cases could, we feel, have been avoided if liaison arrangements had continued.

  3.  Another problem we have experienced during our involvement with the Independent Tribunal Service concerns the actual time allocated for the hearing of an appeal. For example, Disability Living Allowance appeals can be allocated the same amount of time (in a lot of cases, half an hour) to hear a case regarding one Component of this benefit as an appeal relating to two components. Attention, therefore, needs to be given to more realistic timings to prevent the adjournment of appeal hearings through lack of time. Not only would this be fairer to the appellant, especially to people with ill health or disability or caring responsibilities, but it can only reduce the additional costs involved in a re-hearing (both in terms of time and money) .

  4.  The lack of a systematic approach regarding the receipt, and processing, of additional evidence/correspondence sent in by the appellant (or their representative) after the appeal documents have been prepared has also been a cause for concern for our advisers. Again, this has caused problems at an appeal hearing when this evidence/correspondence has not been available and an adjournment has had to be made—or the start of the hearing delayed because copies have only been made available on the day. In these latter cases, these have often tended to be supplied by our staff who have had the foresight (in light of previous experience) to take additional copies of the "missing" paperwork to the hearing. Would it be too onerous to have a system, similar to the one operating in all our offices, whereby correspondence can be logged in as received and processed accordingly? We can, unfortunately, give many examples of cases involving "lost" papers/correspondence at the Independent Tribunal Service (pre and post appeal) and the amount of staff hours required by both ourselves, the customer, and/or the clerks to try and remedy any problems that have occurred as a result. With the new shorter time limits for appeal, it is very likely additional evidence in support of an appeal application will not be obtainable until after the submission etc has been forwarded to The Appeals Service. Improvements in this area can only be to the benefit of all parties.

  5.  Since more power is being given to tribunal chairs, more attention should also be given to the monitoring of their work. This monitoring should encompass the effective running of the appeal hearing, as well as the quality of the decision making.

  6.  This monitoring also needs to be extended to cover tribunal clerks. Under powers introduced in the new Social Security (Decision Making and Appeals) Regulations, clerks are being allocated quasi-judicial duties. For example, they are allowed to strike out an appeal in certain circumstances without referral to a legally qualified tribunal panel member.

  7.  Whilst the appeal decision making monitoring systems may safeguard appellants from poor decisions, an open complaints procedure to cover administrative problems would certainly support the intention of improving customer service. We, like most public service organisations these days, have a complaints procedure in place to the benefit and protection of all customers and staff. For people to believe customer service has been taken seriously by an organisation, the way it deals with situations where something goes wrong (for example) must be published and made available to all its clients.

  8.  We understand that tribunal members already receive training. We presume this training, in addition to technical issues, will include/continue to include awareness of disability and issues relating to ethnicity—especially with the abolition of "lay members".

Paul Burgess

Head of Service

7 June 1999

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