Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. May I open the public session of evidence this morning on our Social Security Appeals follow-up hearing. We are delighted to be joined this morning by, and warmly welcome, Neil Ward, who is the Chief Executive of the Appeals Service, and he is joined, of course, by His Honour Judge Michael Harris, who is the President of the Appeals Service. We are very grateful to you both for coming at such short notice for what is a follow-up of what was an inquiry that we did in 1999 to which you contributed significantly. You helpfully submitted a memorandum which came perhaps a little bit late. Some of my colleagues, including myself, did not get down until Tuesday and we may not be as familiar with that as we would otherwise have liked. I would not like you to take for granted that we have assimilated it. Perhaps you would like to set the scene by outlining what you think the significant changes have been since the previous session and then we can look at some lines of questioning which I think are pretty obvious from the original report and the Government's response. You have made some progress since then obviously which you will both want to tell us about. Perhaps you could start and then we will take the examination from there.

  (Mr Ward) We are grateful for the Committee's continuing interest in the development of our service. We are sorry the memorandum arrived late but, as you said, we had short notice with the Easter break. I think when you do reflect on it you will see that there is a fair degree of progress on most fronts within that. I hope it will be clear to you that we have come a long way since we last met here in June 1999. We have made substantial progress on most of the fronts that were of concern to you and to us and to the users of the service and particularly those who gave evidence before the Committee at that time. We are not yet the finished product, we have got a long way to go. Indeed, we may never be the finished product because our aspirations continue to push the barriers ahead of us in delivering our services and the more we know, the more we wish to develop the service. We believe that we are getting there. The feedback from our external commentators, including the four who gave evidence before you two years ago, tell us that we are making significant progress. Where we are not there we do have plans still to improve our service and perhaps we may talk about some of that during the course of the morning. To complete the transformation of this service, and we have been going for two years, Michael and I together, is a long haul game and our progress still needs to be seen in that light, it is not easy to think about a substantial transformation. We have made real progress but there are still areas to tackle. The last comment I would make is two years ago we were all feeling our way forward about the relationship between Michael and I, between the Secretary of State and the judiciary in the arrangement which is essentially a joint venture between Michael and I, the President and I, and between those who we lead across the service. There were concerns, I think, amongst others about how this might work out. We think it is proving to be a constructive and enabling relationship and is proving to be a practical model which works. Some of the proof of that would be, for example, we anticipated a significant challenge around human rights, which we have not seen, and the feedback we get from the welfare rights groups, who we consult in our forum, is that we have not seen that because the system is working and it is bringing about improvement, albeit at different paces for different areas.

  2. Judge Harris, would you like to add anything to that?
  (Judge Harris) Only that, as you all know, over the last few years we have really had to transform ourselves from the old Independent Tribunal Service to the Appeals Service and there were clear risks in that for any organisation. I think it is fair to say that we not only survived it but we are actually improving on the way in which we were performing before. I think that is a tribute really to the staff and to the tribunal members who started off when I arrived in March 1998 with the proposals in a state of considerable anxiety and uncertainty as to what was going to happen to the service and are now in a much more confident frame of mind and willing and wanting to see the processing and the hearing of appeals carried out efficiently and well. I think we are getting there but it is a process that takes time.

  3. Indeed, I think that is true. I think we can see even in the short space of time, relatively speaking, since we last spoke to you that you have made solid progress and that is very welcome. There are obviously distances still to go and that is to be understood. I wonder if I could just start by asking you this question. It is a slightly unusual period because the change over, the actual date of transition, means that some of the systems were changing but we have seen a dramatic fall in the overall number of appeals since we last saw you in June 1999. What is your view as to why that fall has occurred? Is there anything obvious? We have got some ideas ourselves. One of the worries might be, for example, that the time frame for lodging an appeal is a lot shorter and does this mean that a lot of people are falling off the edge by not getting them lodged in time? What is your understanding of that quite dramatic reduction?
  (Mr Ward) The figures fluctuate, I think it is fair to say. We saw quite a big reduction last year on the previous year. This year it has risen again and we are probably up to 260,000/270,000 intake this year, largely around Disability Living Allowance and the processing of more appeals than we anticipated on that. We are seeing a reduction certainly in what would be "type one" tribunals for us, Income Support, Jobseeker's Allowance, factually based appeals and benefits where there are probably a number of reasons for that. One would be, I think, the DMA effect, the reconsideration process, better explanations of decisions which enable people earlier in the process to understand, correcting decisions earlier on rather than letting it to go to appeal with us. Partly I think we are seeing some effect of, I am sure, increased accuracy of first tier decision taking, which is better quality of decisions therefore, which are not finding their way to us. I think the reason for the change we are seeing is a significant shift towards appeals based on sickness or disability claims. 70 per cent of our case load now arises out of sickness or disability related benefits, which is a shift. We might see some rebalance of that with Housing Benefit. Otherwise the volumes are balancing around 270,000 a year I would say.
  (Judge Harris) I was going to pick up on your other point as to whether or not it might indicate that the time limits have become so short as to exclude people from the process. It is not easy to know precisely the answer to that question. We certainly do not get any feedback from representative organisations, either at the national forum or locally, that the time limits are such that in their view their usual clients are being denied. We do have the fallback situation, as you know. There is the strike out if you fail to return the form and we have extended that from the statutory 14 days to 21 days so we do not do it until then. Then of those that we strike out about 25 per cent, or thereabouts, ask for reinstatement of their appeal and in nearly all cases they get it. I think that we are at the position where we could say that what the provisions have done is to exclude from our work those appellants who, if you like, put in their appeal in the first moment of disappointment having been turned down. We are at the same time able to catch those who for various reasons, sometimes very, very good reasons, are not able to return the forms as we would like them as quickly as they should. I think we are getting the balance right but clearly this is something which needs to be looked at probably after the system has been working for longer. It is a matter of obvious concern that nobody wants statutory time limits, the effect of which is to bar people who have genuine good claims from the system. To have some sort of limit is inevitable and good because clearly we want to get on, it is important that people should get on with challenging decisions made by the Department that they think are wrong. They should not be allowed to hang on to it for ages. We need some limit and I think we obviously need to look carefully that we have got it right. We think we may have. Certainly from the feedback that does not exist at the moment from welfare rights groups, it looks as though we may be more or less where we should be.

  4. You are right, of course, if the pressure groups and welfare rights agencies had noticed that this was a problem for them, they would be making representations to see you. You say that there have been none to date?
  (Judge Harris) No.

  5. I think you are right to draw a positive conclusion from that. That is very good to know. There is, also the element, of course it will be a unique one off, in that the situation changed in April 1999 and the time at which the appeal was noted is now different because it was noted previously in the first tier but now it is only noted when it comes in, the submission is made to you.
  (Judge Harris) That is right.

  6. Maybe the numbers will have suffered a bit, rather predictably, from that. Do you think there is an effect there that we should be looking for?
  (Mr Ward) I do not think we have lost any appeals in the process. I think at the time we were getting our house in order in early 1999 there were some appeals which were clearly still registered with us which when we explored further with the Benefits Agency no longer existed, had been superseded, had been dealt with. The records were out of date. That was only a small number. I think we have changed methods of counting. We changed quite deliberately towards counting waiting time, that was the thing that people most told us they were interested in: "How long is it going to take for my appeal to be heard", not "How long did it take for you to clear yesterday's appeal". So that was quite a positive behaviourial effect. That is not to say that we have not continued to monitor the effect of the end to end process from receipt in the first tier agency through our system to delivery. That is what we keep an eye on and, indeed, the Secretary of State has set us targets in the coming year in relation to clarifying what that timetable should be for clearing the appeals.

  7. Two brief follow up questions from me. Just looking at your Business Plan for 2001-02 on page 10 under the chapter Effective Use of Resources you are anticipating 277,000 appeals. Is that increase an estimate of the additional work that you will have to take on due to Housing Benefit, Council Tax appeals or what? Can you tell us a bit about why 277,000 appeals is your expected workload for the current year?
  (Mr Ward) Our current level of intake this year is 260,000, so it is not dissimilar in overall volume. We are taking on Housing Benefit appeals from 2 July. Quite how many we are going to take on, we are not sure, it could be from 5,000 to 30,000, we are not sure. We have made assumptions of about 15,000 and we are not able really to pin down a better effect than that. There are significantly fewer appeals going to review boards in local authorities than even that lower estimate but the very involvement of an independent tribunal, with welfare rights who are very familiar with that service, is bound to lead to an increase across the country and some of those figures reflect that. It is not a substantial growth on this year's throughput and, indeed, we have been clearing at slightly over the 265,000 level as well so we have cleared that level of appeals this year.

  8. Looking at the quarterly statistics and looking at the change in the profile of the various cases in the five major areas that you now deal with, we are seeing substantial rises in DLA and Attendance Allowance cases. Have you got any idea of why that is happening, what it means for the work that you are doing? Maybe this is a question more for the first tier, Benefits Agency, but it would be valuable to know if you have got any idea of what is going on.
  (Mr Ward) There is clearly a swing in the appeals towards those elements which have an element of discretion in the delivery of the benefit as opposed to the type 1 appeals—Income Support, JSA—which are largely factually based. I mentioned earlier why I think they may have reduced in volume. There is also the fact that I think there is strong encouragement for people to take an appeal on Disability Benefits, for example, to the tribunal because often the best evidence that can be presented is the individual themselves and, therefore, they will attend tribunals and will be encouraged to attend tribunals. It has a significant impact on the nature of our service because they are three person tribunals rather than one person or two person tribunals. They often have substantial further evidence, often greater representation of those cases and, therefore, the way in which we structure our services, the way in which we structure our cases, the way in which we need to make our services more accessible, physically accessible or for those with sensory disabilities, then they change the nature of the type of service we have to provide with a substantial leaning towards people who are sick or disabled.

  9. That is something you will be wanting to watch and monitor yourselves?
  (Mr Ward) Yes, absolutely.

Mr Thomas

  10. Mr Ward, you have moved the goalposts, have you not, as far as waiting times are concerned?
  (Mr Ward) We have certainly made sure that the behaviourial effect in our service is towards how quickly can we get cases into tribunals, that we have provided evidence and the right people are there at the right time.

  11. The basis for calculating waiting times has changed over the last year or so, has it not, from a calculation on the basis of when the appeal was lodged, which was the old system, to the new system of starting the clock as soon as the Appeals Service has received the papers from the first tier agency?
  (Mr Ward) Yes.

  12. That will inevitably mean that on paper the waiting times are reduced because how you define waiting times has changed, has it not?
  (Mr Ward) They are different things. They are quite different things so I accept that point. For the last two years we have been clearly focused on trying to reduce the waiting times and we have brought about a reduction from the point of receipt in the Service to the first hearing. I cannot control, as a Chief Executive of the Service, whether we get a decision first time at every hearing but between us we are working hard to try and get the decisions at first time of asking. We are, in parallel, making sure that we still keep a clear focus on the end to end process which is the clearance time from first receipt of an appeal in the agencies and first tier agencies through to the time at which we are able to deliver that. We separate the two because there are different activities involved in trying to ensure that we get on top of the case.

  13. Why should you separate the two because the customers out there who have been waiting for their appeals are more interested in the end to end process, not some sort of internal demarkation that you might have?
  (Mr Ward) That is why, for example, I am leading a group of senior officials across the whole of the Department in order to try to improve the end to end process because that is exactly what the appellant sees.

  14. That is effectively the waiting time, is it not, from the customer's perspective?
  (Mr Ward) The better we get, the closer they get to being the same activity. For the appellant it is "how long do I have to wait until I get a decision?", I agree with that. One of my direct responsibilities is to try to improve the throughput of the Appeals Service in its process and waiting time is the best judge of my ability to try to move that forward. In parallel, it is important that we keep an eye on the end to end clearance time and that is why we are trying to develop both alongside each other. I am in a partnership on that.

  15. How are you able to compare waiting times under the old system with waiting times under the new system?
  (Mr Ward) I can only compare waiting times for the period in which I have been in office. We count differently from then. We are still able to compare clearance times from first receipt of the appeal through to delivery of decision. Across Disability and Sickness Benefits they have improved by about somewhere between five and ten weeks and they are remaining fairly static against type one decisions.

  16. Could you give any guidance to this Committee because it will want to give an opinion as to whether there has been an improvement in waiting times from the perspective of the customer? How can you assist this Committee in determining that issue?
  (Mr Ward) Certainly waiting times themselves which we monitor, and have monitored for two years, have moved from something like 15 and a half weeks to something like 13 and a half weeks, 13.6 weeks. There is a definite two week improvement in the process of the waiting time targets. On clearance times, as I pointed out to you before, although we moved to a position of monitoring waiting times—our target—we have continued to monitor clearance times for end to end clearance.

  17. So actually there are two concepts here, clearance times and waiting times?
  (Mr Ward) Yes.

  18. You now define as waiting times as when you get the papers in some proper order from the first tier agency and clearance times is perhaps what we ought to focus on, is it not?
  (Mr Ward) I think you should keep both in focus.

  19. Can I move on. Is there any difference in clearance times now between benefits? We do know that there were substantially longer delays in the case of DLA and Child Support appeals than for other benefits. Is that still the case?
  (Mr Ward) No. The longest areas for clearance times tend to be medical appeals, industrial injuries appeals, for example, where there is often an element of a need for further evidence and an adjournment of cases. They are more likely to be adjourned than other cases. It is adjournments that have the most significant impact on the clearance times of cases. Child Support cases, where there is still a significant element of appellants or their representatives wishing to bring further evidence to bear within the tribunal and the complexity of the case, lead to adjournments. We adjourn in about 14 per cent of all of our cases, nearly always for further evidence. Not entirely but nearly always for further evidence. They are the areas in which there are the longest waiting times and that is because they have more than one hearing. Whenever they have more than one hearing we have to both supply the extra evidence that the tribunal require, or which the appellant themselves are going to bring, and then we have to arrange a second hearing and hopefully we get it cleared at the second hearing, but not always.

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