Select Committee on Liaison First Report

Committee Recommendations: Progress

Sixth Report: The War Pensions Agency Business Plan 1999 - 2000 (HC 377) Published: 16 June 1999

Committee Recommendations: Progress
Sessions 1998-99
Sixth Report: The War Pensions Agency Business Plan 1999 - 2000 (HC 377) Published: 16 June 1999

Government Reply: (HC 793) Published: July 1999
RecommendationGovernment Response Committee Response/Follow upFurther Government Action Notes
The staff of the War Pensions Agency should be congratulated for their professionalism and dedication. Staff of the War Pensions Agency are proud to provide a necessary and valuable service to war pensioners and war widows and they recognise the unique nature of the client base they serve. They also work closely with war pensioners' representatives and this has helped in furthering the partnership arrangements the Agency has successfully developed with ex-service organisations.
  Select committee message cascaded to staff.   
We expect the independent review to result in changes to the decision making and appeals process which bring about significant improvements in the service provided by the Agency and we expect the Agency to take note of the concerns raised in this Report. The Agency has firmly placed service as its first priority which is clearly reflected in the Business Plan. Its standards of service excellence were recognised earlier this year through the award of the Charter Mark, the Government's recognition of service excellence in public sector organisations. The Agency has also recently received "Louder Than Words" accreditation from the RNID. This accreditation is given to organisations acknowledged by way of challenging criteria, as being accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing.
The main aim of the decision making and appeals process review was to identify ways of significantly reducing the length of time taken in the overall claims and appeals process. However, the review also identified a number of opportunities to improve the service provided, through clearer and more frequent communications by telephone and visit, particularly at the outset of a claim. Some of the recommendations in the review can be implemented quickly whilst others will need some further exploration before they can be implemented but I am confident that the new processes have clear potential to improve the service provided.

  The Agency is progressing a change programme which aims to make improvements to the decision making and appeals process. To date we have tested 12 new processes within an operational team - FORwarD Pensions. The results have been fully evaluated and now the Agency is implementing the successful initiatives across operational teams. Two further initiatives are still being developed and are expected to be introduced in April 2001.
Provisions were included in the Child Support, Pensions & Social Security Act 2000 to provide an extension to War Pension appeal rights, new appeal time limits and changes to the composition & jurisdiction of PATs. Work is ongoing to prepare the supporting legislation to enable the changes to be introduced in April 2001.
Though we acknowledge that the Agency's overall performance is good, we are concerned that there may be a significant number of claimants who experience unacceptable delays. It is correct that performance against Secretary of State and Management targets has been good in recent years. However, the Report has rightly identified there are some claimants who experience delays. There can often be good reasons to explain why such delays occur. However, the review of the Agency's decision making and appeals process has identified a number of opportunities which could enable it to simplify and streamline its processes throughout the lifecycle of a claim and appeal. The Agency is working hard to reduce clearance times and to realise the potential that exists to further improve on the standards of service currently delivered.

  The Agency has targeted older claims over the past 18 months. Claims in progress have been managed down from approximately 20,000 to 14000 by March 2000. The Business Plan for 2000/01 has taken into account the SSSCs concerns and the new tighter clearance target is an average clearance time measure. This provides an incentive to concentrate on older cases as well as the new.   
We recommend that there should be separate targets for old and new appeals, that these targets should be challenging and should be improved year-on-year, and that reducing the time taken to clear appeals should be considered a high priority. It is clear that the formula to calculate the previous appeals clearance time targets resulted in some confusion. In line with your recommendation, the Agency had already recognised that the objectives could be better achieved by separate targets for new and old appeals. From April 1999, the target for clearance of new appeals is to clear the majority within 260 days and, for older appeals, to clear 80 per cent of appeals outstanding on 1 April 1999 by 1 April 2000.

  The Agency targets for old and new appeals were separated for 1999/2000. Performance against these targets has been achieved. In 2000/01 the focus has been retained by an internal management target and it is expected that year on year management targets will be set to progress old appeals.   
It is clear to us that significant improvements in the Agency's written communication need to be made if the Agency is to achieve the target of delivering a first class service to war pensioners and war widows. A current Agency priority concerns the standard of written communications. The need for change was first recognised in 1997, when a full review of all forms issued by the Agency was initiated. The need for this review was prompted by a series of events, but most notably the implementation of the War Pensions Computer System. The exercise was subject to both external and internal consultation and an external customer forum was set up to fully reflect the views of pensioners. Since the Select Committee hearing in April, the Agency has commissioned a fundamental review of all of its leaflets, which will be subject to examination and approval by the Plain English Campaign to ensure clarity.

  The Agency is considering best practice as part of a continuing review of customer service. Leaflets advising on War Pensions have been reviewed with the help of the Plain English Campaign. Changes have been made and the Agency was awarded the Crystal Mark. The SSSC specifically commented on the standard of computer generated letters. IT enhancements aimed at improving and personalising notifications have been piloted. The pilot has now concluded and the Agency has embarked on a rollout of this new system across operational teams. A further report is to be commissioned which will identify whether the requirements of the recommendation have been met.   
We recommend that calls to the telephone Helpline should be charged at the local rate and that urgent consideration should be given to the introduction of a Freephone number. The Helpline service provided by the Agency is clearly valued by the individuals and the ex-service organisations who use it. New equipment was installed last November and this helped to provide useful management information about usage and characteristics of the service users. As a result, the Agency increased the staffing levels to 20 staff (18 full time equivalents). The Agency is now receiving an average of over 25,000 calls per month and calls are answered in an average of 14 seconds. The recent focus on improving the overall standard of service and the responsiveness of the system has continued by way of a study currently considering the implications and costs of introducing either local rate charges or a Freephone service for the Helpline.

  WPA successfully introduced a Freephone service to its customers on 1 April 2000 in response to this recommendation.   
We are concerned at the lack of public awareness of war pensions and are surprised that increasing public awareness is not a high priority for the Agency. We recommend that the issue of take-up should be addressed. We recommend that, as a first step, details of how to claim a war pension should be included in the notification of state pension entitlement sent by the Department to people approaching retirement age. Since the hearing, the Agency has paid attention to this aspect and has introduced some organisational changes to bring together the functions of Customer Services, Complaints and Communications, previously dealt with by different parts of the Agency. It is believed that the new integrated team will provide a sharper focus to the examination of existing and new opportunities to raise the level of public awareness about war pensions. The programme of work will include consideration of the Committee's recommendation to provide information about war pensions in retirement pension claim packs. In addition, wider initiatives are being explored aimed at potential customers who do not have regular dealings with service or ex-service organisations.
  The Agency is investigating the potential to utilise State Pensions notifications to promote take up of WP and establish if this action is feasible. Alternative options are also being pursued (e.g.; the issue of WP claim forms)
The War Pensions Welfare Service operates a mobile advice unit and new leaflets on the Welfare Service and Gulf War Service have been introduced. To try to raise medical awareness an article has been commissioned and is in preparation for PULSE magazine. This aims to draw attention to war pensions and armed forces matters and is to be delivered by 14 November 2000.

It is clear to us that the current review of the work of the War Pensions Agency should take into consideration the high value that is placed on the work of the Welfare Service. In addition, we recommend that the Agency should seek to draw on the experience of the fire and police services in the continued development of the War Pensioners' Welfare Service. The Prior Options Review of the War Pensions Agency will consider carefully all aspects of the Agency's work, including the high value which is placed on the work of the War Pensioners' Welfare Service. The Committee's recommendation to draw on the experience of the fire and police services is accepted. Contact with representatives of the Metropolitan services has been established but there is no progress to report to date.

  Potential for improvement in some areas was identified following an exercise to benchmark the Welfare Service against London Fire and Police Welfare Services. As a result each Regional Welfare Manager undertook to benchmark their welfare provision against a local organisation and further benchmarking exercises are to take place regularly.   
We believe that the War Pensions Agency should be retained as a 'stand alone' body for at least the next five years. Moreover, we consider it to be very important that ex-service organisations should be consulted fully in the course of the Prior Options Review. All Departments are required to examine the work of their agencies periodically to ensure that services are being delivered in the most effective way. In respect of the War Pensions Agency, a number of organisations have been consulted to inform the review and a significant number have responded. These are all being considered, along with the Committee's recommendations, as part of the review. The outcome is expected to be announced in the autumn.

  The Prior Options Review has recommended that Agency status be retained for a further five years. During the review, ex-service organisations were given the opportunity to provide comments during the consultation period. Their views were subsequently taken into account by the review team.   
We recommend that consideration should be given to hiving off the administration of the Ilford Park Polish Home, while continuing to place priority on providing a high level of service to the residents of the Home and the community that it serves. We are committed to the continued provision of a high level of service to the residents of the Ilford Park Polish Home and the community it serves. As part of the review, consideration is being given to the best way of managing the delivery of these services.

  A study has explored the potential for partnerships to manage the administration of the home on behalf of WPA. A submission has been made to Minister.   
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. The Voluntary Early Retirement/Early Severance scheme operated in 1997-1998, was an essential mechanism to adjust staffing levels to match a workload that had been on a downward trend for some time. The Agency is a recognised Investors in People organisation and staff expertise has subsequently been replaced by placing a high emphasis on staff training and development. However, I recognise the recommendation that there are lessons to be learned from the Agency's experience and within DSS there are arrangements for personnel departments to meet regularly and share experience and best practice. To ensure that other Government departments can learn from the Agency's experience, I have asked the Agency to ensure that the Cabinet Office are made aware.

  In response to this recommendation the Chief Executive commissioned a lessons learned report. This has concluded and a case study has been produced and submitted to Cabinet Office so that lessons can be learned for the future.   
In areas of medical controversy, consideration might be given to the commissioning of medical evidence jointly with the ex-service community so as to develop common ground and avoid the divisions that we have seen in recent years. It is important to reach common ground on areas of particular medical controversy and for all parties to have a common understanding of the basis on which claims are decided. To aid understanding, the Department has embarked on the production of a series of statements, which describe the approach taken to various medical conditions under the terms of the scheme. The statements will be issued to members of the Central Advisory Committee on War Pensions, which contains representatives of ex-service organisations and war pensioners. Additionally, in the war pensions scheme, appropriately trained and experienced medical officers are appointed to answer medical questions. Their role is to give impartial advice based on current scientific and medical understanding. This ensures that decisions are up to date and soundly based.

  An international conference on "Psychological Injury - its Understanding and Support", sponsored by WPA, was held on 09 &10 March 2000. The emphasis was on participation, sharing experience and expertise. Delegates included experts from across the spectrum of opinion and interested lay people, including WPC members and representatives of ex-service organisations. The event particularly addressed contentious aspects of psychological injury and was voted successful. The proceedings have been edited and the draft is currently being QA'd. Publication will hopefully be at the end of the month.
We consider it to be very important that the experience of the War Pensions Agency should inform both the current review and the consultation which follows. Although the MOD are in the lead on the review of compensation arrangements for service personnel, it is a joint review with DSS and the War Pensions Agency has been an important source of information and advice in developing proposals for the administration of a new scheme. I expect that proposals for a new compensation scheme will be subject to thorough consultation, including with service and ex-service organisations.

  WPA is working closely with MoD collegaues to develop options for the new scheme and its administration . MoD, as owner of the scheme, will determine which options are presented to their Ministers.   
We were surprised to hear of the anachronistic treatment of officers and other ranks. We believe that the current review provides an opportunity to modernise the arrangements. Rank differentials have already been removed from war disablement pensions in 1993, and from war disablement gratuities in 1997. The Department will be actively considering the recommendation to remove the distinction in war widows' pensions and will be looking to bring forward proposals for change when possible.
  Rank differentials were abolished in war disablement pensions in 1993 as part of a package of changes which resulted in gains for pensioners of up to £5 week. Differentials in war disablement gratuities were abolished in 1997. The Department accepts that there remains a distinction in awards of war widow`s pension and will consider whether to make further changes to the scheme in the light of overall departmental priorities.   
We fully support the Government's aim of devising a modern, fair and simplified compensation scheme. We welcome the fact that the current review of compensation arrangements will result in the publication of a consultation document and trust that the consultation will be conducted thoroughly. The War Pensions Agency has been properly involved in the joint MoD/DSS Compensation Review from an early stage to provide information and advice in developing proposals for a new scheme. There is an existing commitment to ensure a thorough consultation process on the outcome of any proposals for a new scheme, with both service and ex-service organisations.

  There is an existing commitment to ensure a thorough consultation process on the outcome of any proposals for a new scheme, with both service and ex-service organisations. WPA continues to inform the MoD led review of compensation and will play a full part in the consultation process.   

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