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Disability Benefits

6. Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): What measures he is taking to monitor the operation of the new rules covering appeals over claims for disability benefits. [102932]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): Arrangements are in place to monitor the effects of the changes that we have made to decision making and handling appeals. We will look, for example, at the time taken to prepare submissions and the length of time that it takes for an appeal to be heard.

Mr. Healey: I welcome the changes to the appeals system, which mean that the Appeals Service is at last starting to clear the backlog of cases. In monitoring the changes, will my hon. Friend look at the new one-month deadline for clients between the adjudication officer's decision and the appeal? That is causing some concern to local benefits advisers in Rotherham. Will she keep an open mind on extending that time limit if there is evidence that some clients genuinely cannot cope with that tight deadline?

Angela Eagle: We introduced the changes in decision making and appeals in respect of disability living allowance and disability working allowance on 18 October, so it is far too soon to say whether the problems that my hon. Friend suspects may be occurring are occurring. I have no problem about pledging that we will keep the matter under review. However, to ensure that the appeals process is fast and effective, there has to be balance. The Independent Tribunal Service--the new appeals agency--has reduced the case load backlog from 70,000 in February to 11,800 last October. Waiting times have gone down from the average of seven months that we inherited to about 16 weeks, which is an enormous improvement.

All-Work Test

7. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): If he will make a statement on the future of the all-work test. [102933]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): We are in the process of replacing the all-work test with the personal capability assessment, which will play a key role in supporting disabled people and encouraging them to take steps back to work. Regulations are now in place to enable medical assessments to provide positive information on what people can do, as well as what they cannot. Last month, we started using the personal capability assessment in the ONE areas.

Mr. Leigh: The concept of changing the all-work test to a test to gauge people's personal capabilities may be a good one, but is the Minister aware of the concern among many disabled people, particularly given that Ministers originally talked about some people abusing the system? How can we keep the existing medical criteria--as the Minister intends to do--and stop people abusing the system without putting undue pressure on people, especially those with learning difficulties, who often find form filling demanding?

Mr. Bayley: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the medical criteria for entitlement to incapacity benefit

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will not change as a result of the changes that we have made to the all-work test. For example, people who cannot walk and use wheelchairs will score 15 points, and therefore qualify for incapacity benefit, as they have done in the past. Many people who use wheelchairs can and do work. That includes Members of this House and of another place who use wheelchairs and do extremely demanding full-time jobs.

The personal capability assessment supplements the test of entitlement to benefit--which does not change in any way--with medical advice on the steps that people may take to make it more possible for them to work should they want to do so. That is the Government's intention, and that is what we are doing.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Is not it essential to raise the standard of examinations? Several of my constituents have been traumatised by medical practitioners who have performed poorly. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is working hard to raise standards in the all-work test? Some of my constituents have been advised that they cannot take along a representative to the test; will he confirm that they can in fact do so?

Mr. Bayley: The simple answer to that final point is yes, they can.

The overwhelming majority of examinations by medical services are conducted to a high standard. One of our recent innovations is to grade the reports--grade A, B and C--to keep much closer control of the quality of advice that is given, but it is true that the advice sometimes does not come up to a decent standard; when that happens, both Government and Opposition Members complain. The Government are taking a wide range of steps to improve the quality and consistency of the advice that medical services give to decision makers on the benefits: toughening the selection and recruitment procedures, improving in-service training and improving the clinical advice on disability assessment medicine that is given to the doctors who provide the advice to decision makers.

Child Support Agency

8. Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): If he will make a statement on the work load of the independent case examiner of the CSA. [102934]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): The case load of the independent case examiner rose from 1,087 cases in 1997-98 to 1,536 in 1998-99. The average clearance time for cases being dealt with by early resolution was 17.2 weeks, and 33.6 weeks for those that were accepted for full investigation.

Mrs. Spelman: In view of the volume of complaints, the independent case examiner warned the Social Security Committee in November that she may be turning complaints about the unfairness of the legislation back to parliamentarians. Is it right for her to do that?

Angela Eagle: The legislation governing child support is being changed. Indeed, the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill has its Second Reading tomorrow.

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It would seem odd for the independent case examiner to do other than examine how a case has gone through rather than taking complaints about the structure of a system that Parliament is right in the middle of changing.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): Will my hon. Friend have regard to the pressure on the independent case examiner's department? Perhaps a little more co-operation from the Child Support Agency might help, but a substantial improvement would result if some of the Government's proposals to improve the agency's work were brought forward. With such an approach, it would be substantially easier for people to understand the system and there would be less reference to the independent case examiner.

Angela Eagle: The case examiner's case load has gone up, but it is still the same proportion of cases, because the case load of the Child Support Agency as a whole has gone up. The proportion was 0.015 per cent. of cases last year, and 0.016 per cent. this year.

My hon. Friend made a point about the difficulty of the legislation. The whole of Parliament recognises that, and we will take steps to put it right--not least through tomorrow's Second Reading--and change the entire system. We have already made available an additional £28 million to deliver improvements to the current system. Many right hon. and hon. Members know that the basic problem with the system that we inherited is that it is too complicated to be administered easily, and we all know the implications of that, which is why we are making the changes.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): The case examiner will be rushed off her feet in October 2001 if the new computers that the Child Support Agency is paying for are not ready in time for the new formula. Given that the Department is incapable of paying pensions on time because of a computer bungle--despite a year of promising to sort out the problem--will the Minister guarantee on the record that the new system will not be put into place until the computers are ready?

Angela Eagle: I was astonished by the coverage that the hon. Gentleman provoked in the newspapers today about a reply I gave to him. He claimed that the computer system--which, by the way, does not yet exist, because Parliament has given us no money to buy it--is in chaos and delayed already. It is not delayed. It is on time to the extent--[Interruption.] We are in discussions with the providers of the computer system and we are drawing up the spec for it. The hon. Gentleman should--[Interruption.] We have been open about the fact that we will not introduce the new arrangements before we have a viable computer system in place. The previous Government did that when they bought an off-the-shelf system from Florida that was first made in 1975 and is now hopelessly out of date and useless at the job. We still have to use it and that is why the system is in such disarray.

We will get a new computer system, but the hon. Gentleman should stop scaremongering about things that do not exist yet. The reply that I gave him said that the child support project would be over in 2003, but he clearly does not realise that projects wind down only after

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computer systems have been turned on and the entire case load has been moved over. The hon. Gentleman should stop scaremongering and try to help us make the change.

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