Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Can I ask the President what view he has as to adjournments? Is there a policy as such with regard to that?
  (Judge Harris) No. You cannot lay down a judicial policy. You can discourage adjournments, and I do, and everybody knows that I discourage adjournments, but at the end an individual tribunal has to make up its own mind on the particular facts of the case whether adjourning is in the interests of doing a good job. It would be quite improper of me to interfere with that. There is a dilemma here, just picking up a point that you have just raised. Clearly in cases, particularly in the Disability Benefit cases, there is more scope for the possibility of having to adjourn because the appellants will come along very often and will not have had sufficient time perhaps to have prepared the medical evidence that they need in order to present their case and will ask for further time. Sometimes that would have been obvious at an earlier stage, so if we previewed the case we might have been able to spot that this was the sort of case for which we ought to accelerate that process so we did not waste a hearing which then became adjourned. It is a balance, is it not? If we spend too much previewing all of these cases we then find that we run out of time to actually hear them. We have to form a judgment really. Some of the cases we do look at in advance to see whether or not we can intervene at an early stage and say "we would like further medical evidence in this case, it is obvious that we need it and we are going to need it when it comes to hearing".

  21. That is case management which is becoming part of the new culture of the judicial system.
  (Judge Harris) Of course, and I think that we will probably need to move further down that road. We are already doing it to a significant extent but there are limits to the extent to which one can do it effectively. Even if one looks at a case at the case management point it still will not necessarily give you the answer as to what is going to happen when the case is actually put on for hearing. It does not guarantee that there are not going to be further adjournments. There is clearly room for judgment as to how much case management we indulge in and how much we do not.

  22. Thank you for that. Are there regional variations in performance on, firstly, clearance times and, secondly, waiting times?
  (Mr Ward) Yes, there are. We have not made as much progress as we might have wanted to in three of our areas: Wales and the South West, the South East of England and the area covered by our processing centre in Nottingham, two of which are our largest centres. We have made substantial progress both in terms of changing the quality and nature of the activity that is happening but we have not made the same degree of progress there as we have elsewhere.

  23. Why?
  (Mr Ward) A number of reasons. One is that we have more difficulty with recruitment and retention in those particular areas. We are based in Cardiff, Sutton and in Nottingham.

  24. I am surprised you say that.
  (Mr Ward) Sorry?

  25. I am surprised you say that because that might have struck people as being very much the case as far as London and the South East is concerned but perhaps not Wales and other areas?
  (Mr Ward) Other people sometimes pay more money than we pay. The sense of improvement, which is rife across the whole of our service, means there is a significantly different atmosphere in our offices now than there was two years ago, indeed than there was a year ago. That has not yet permeated through those offices that are most hard pressed and, therefore, it is a combination of "Is this the best office I want to work in? Is it a hard pressed office? Is there a better employer or a better paying employer in the area", which does have an effect on us. It also has an effect on our ability to retain the best of our staff. We have wastage, which is fairly typical across the country, of 13 per cent but we are struggling, as I have said. We also have difficulty where the span of responsibility is large, particularly in, let us say, Wales and the South West, which is a very large region for us that we cover from North Wales to Truro in Cardiff—sorry, in Cornwall. That is a big span for the level of manager we have had in the offices. They have performed heroically but we are about to make substantial changes in investing in additional front line, additional experienced managers to come in and try to put greater management attention in helping the staff and supporting the staff in the delivery of the service.

  Mr Thomas: You still adopt a colonial attitude to North Wales, do you not? North Wales has to be governed from Cardiff, is that the case?


  26. Well, Truro is being governed from Cardiff as well!
  (Judge Harris) There are lots of practical arguments in favour of saying that it would be much better dealt with from Liverpool.

Mr Thomas

  27. Sure.
  (Judge Harris) But there are sensitivities here and obviously those are sensitivities that we have taken into consideration.

  28. Thank you for that. The target time set by the Secretary of State for waiting times is now defined as 14 weeks and you are getting towards that, are you not?
  (Mr Ward) The figures nationally are 13.6 weeks.

  29. You are on that. Do you still think that is too high? Presumably you would be wanting to aim for something less than that?
  (Mr Ward) Our ambition is to move to substantially less than that.

  30. To what?
  (Mr Ward) It is hard for me to speculate that far ahead. I think we thought we would probably make more progress this year than we have. Our first year we had massive improvement in the delivery of this service, we reduced the case load by half. We did have significant improvements in the waiting times and the clearance times but we are not controllers of our own destiny, we are not controllers of the volume of appeals that land on our desk. We have had to divert some of our attention still with throughput rather than quality.

  31. As far as waiting times are concerned, you are controlling your own destiny because you are only measuring the time from when you first receive the paper.
  (Mr Ward) I have volume plus resources I have to balance.

  32. They are going down.
  (Mr Ward) Which are?

  33. Volumes of appeals are going down.
  (Mr Ward) 260,000.

  34. Can I ask you what you think a reasonable time, civilised time, for waiting should be for payments, bearing in mind very many of them are vulnerable people, very anxious?
  (Mr Ward) Yes. I think over time—and I do not know how quickly that time is—if we were getting down to around ten weeks then I think we would be making significant progress but we are not there yet and we are not capable.
  (Judge Harris) Can I make this point. 14 weeks, yes, is the period now for waiting times but of that period there is the dead period at the start of the process where, although we are notified of the appeal and get the papers, we have to wait for the appellant to produce the form which tells us whether or not it is to be an oral or a paper hearing. That is a period in which we can do nothing. If you exclude that period from the overall waiting time then the time that we are playing with is in the order, just a little in excess of nine weeks. That is the period we can work on in terms of making a reduction. We cannot reduce the first period for the point that you made at the very beginning, that it is right that there should be time for appellants to be able to embark on that part of the process. That is where we need to concentrate, it is in that nine week period where it is in our control that improvement needs to be made. I think it is very difficult to say what is the ideal point because it varies from case to case. If we reduce it too much we will get complaints and we have already had them in our best performing offices from welfare rights groups in particular saying "We have not been given enough time to get the medical evidence". They have severe problems in getting medical evidence from doctors willing to see their clients. So we have to take that into account. Now, there may be other appellants who would like their appeals heard, as you rightly say, much, much sooner and it would be nice to have a more flexible system where we could advance those who wanted them to be advanced. At the same time I think we have to recognise that there will always be quite a large category of cases, especially in the disability field, where to try and reduce the period too much will mean that they will not have enough time to properly present the evidence to the tribunal and that is something that we need to look at.

  Mr Thomas: Thank you, that is very helpful.

Dr Naysmith

  35. I want to explore this difference between clearance times and waiting times just a little bit. Obviously you want to focus in on the bit that you have got responsibility for, I understand that. Can I just ask two questions. One is: are the overall clearance times publicised somewhere as much as waiting times are, not necessarily in your reports but presumably people who are accessing the service should know what is happening? The second thing is have you any evidence at all that the early bit for which you are not responsible, which is the responsibility of the Benefits Agency, has been improving at the same time as yours has? The overall clearance is getting better but it may well be because you are getting better and the bit at the start is not getting better. I would just be interested in hearing your observations on that.
  (Mr Ward) The reason we focus on waiting times is because that is something we can do something about within our service, that is the future.

  36. I understand that.
  (Mr Ward) We have to learn from the past in order to deliver for the future. There were two parts to your question. The second part was do I have any evidence of improvement in the first tier agencies or changing the first tier agencies.

  37. Are they getting their act together as well at the same time as you are and getting the papers to you quicker?
  (Mr Ward) They are getting their act together. Whether we are seeing that yet reflected through in the clearance times I would say that is not yet happening but you will have a chance to talk to the Benefits Agency people. There is significant improvement and focus of attention still on all elements of the end to end process in improving the system. Clearance times have a historical effect and, for example, we are about to clear, I hope, a whole range of cases that have been stayed because there is a case at a higher court. They will all show within our clearance times and will have a significant effect on the figures. So the figures do not necessarily identify current cases that are relevant, they are always historical.

  38. They may be historical but the actual—
  (Mr Ward) There are individuals sitting on each of those appeals and, therefore, waiting for a decision, not all of which we can control even within the whole of the social security system because some of the decisions have been taken elsewhere. As to whether those figures are as much in view as waiting times, I think the answer is currently not. They are available when people ask for them and I always make them available. I have a target this year which is to offer advice to the Secretary of State on what the end to end target should be so that the targets will be set next year, i.e. 2002-03, which will have an end to end target which will be publicly set, monitored and measured.

  39. What is the scope for improvement at the earlier part of the process? How long does it roughly take on average now?
  (Mr Ward) I think it takes roughly, on average, about 40 days.

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