Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. 40?
  (Mr Ward) 40 working days for the production of the evidence in order to get to us. The scope for that is an issue between level of resources that are available, the ability of the staff and the evidence is in front of them.

  41. There is scope there for a very much greater degree of improvement taking into account what you said about the dead time at the start for speeding the process up?
  (Mr Ward) The real improvement comes in the quality of first tier decisions where we can reduce the number of appeals coming.

Mr King

  42. When you met the Committee in 1999 you said you had a twin strategy for dealing with the backlog of inherited cases of some 77,000. We understood there were something like 800 still around but in your memorandum you say there are 728.
  (Mr Ward) Yes.

  43. Those 728 cases have been waiting for over two years.
  (Mr Ward) They have indeed.

  44. Could you give us some information about that? Why are they still there?
  (Mr Ward) The majority of those cases that are still in that number are relying upon a decision at a higher court, we are awaiting the outcome of a lead case. We have progressed, they are awaiting outcomes of decisions elsewhere.

  45. These ones are different from the stockpiled cases?
  (Mr Ward) There are cases which are awaiting a decision of the Court of Appeal, for example, which we cannot progress. There is a queue throughout the system of which we have currently some 6,500 cases which are waiting, of which—

  46. Those 728 are part of that?
  (Mr Ward) They are not all that. Some of those are cases which for one reason or another we still have not been able to get through. They are all in view and we are trying actively to progress them. In some of them, it is fair to say, the appellant is not all that keen on coming to the tribunal with the case because there might be, for example, an overpayment case from which the appellant is not to gain and in that case the Secretary of State is the main beneficiary of that case.

  47. The second part of the strategy was to reduce waiting times for all current cases. On the basis of it you seem to have failed to reach the Secretary of State's target of ten per cent.
  (Mr Ward) Yes. We have talked about waiting times in relation to the throughput, the second bit is not to allow the backlog of all these cases to accumulate in the way in which they had when we inherited them, in which over 50 per cent of the cases were over six months old. Currently about 19 per cent of our case load cases are over six months. Our target was 10 per cent, very much an aspirational target given that we were significantly away from that originally. It is the right behaviourial activity. It is about the way in which we tackle cases that make our tribunals more effective at the first time of hearing, so how can we get the right evidence, the right people in the room, to try and get them right at the first time of deciding. When a case comes out for an adjournment, it is how quickly can we get that case back in. There should be no cases that have not had a hearing. There are no cases that have not had a hearing in cases that are over six months old. It is how quickly can we get cases back into the tribunal room. We have introduced measures which include action sheets signed by the chairman and the clerk of the tribunal on the day which says what specific action needs to be taken before that case can be brought back into the tribunal. We have active chasing of progress of those cases, whether it is further evidence from the Agency, whether it is further medical evidence, which is often the case and which is often what delays the process of getting them back into tribunal. We are on the case but it is not an easy task.

  48. Can you give us a bit more information about these 17,850 cases which have been waiting for more than six months? How long have they actually been waiting? We accept that you have got some stockpiling going on.
  (Mr Ward) The cases over six months old? They range from a day over six months old to in some cases, as we have already talked about, over two years. We tackle cases on the basis of first in, first out. We are determined to deal with the oldest cases and that is why our targets are geared to the type of behaviourial effect we want from staff, which is how can we get a case back into the tribunal as quickly as possible and get it decided.

  49. These over 10,000 are not cases where a higher court is involved?
  (Mr Ward) That is right. They are cases which have been adjourned by and large and where we are trying to progress the case back into tribunal.

  Mr King: I think it would be good to get some more detailed information about these cases, the types of cases they are and the reasons.


  50. Would it be easy to do that? We understand what is happening to the 700-odd that are waiting for the Appeal Court but a profile of the age of the 10,000-odd, if it is easy to do, would be very helpful to us.
  (Mr Ward) The age profile is easy to do, the question is which types of cases are being held up and why. We can produce some information for you on that[4].

Mrs Humble

  51. Can I just move on to another aspect of delays which is appeals to Commissioners. I am sure you aware since we saw you in June 1999 of our inquiry into the work of the Social Security and Child Support Commissioners and one of the issues that we highlighted then was the delays at Appeals Service level were hampering the handover of cases to the Commissioners. Can you tell me what steps you have taken to unblock those bottlenecks since the publication of our report in May of last year, if any? I am being positive, you see, I am assuming you have taken action.
  (Judge Harris) We have taken lots and lots of steps. The Lord Chancellor has set up a working group, in conjunction with the Secretary of State, to deal with precisely the problem that you have identified. On our side there are, I suppose, a number of points that I would like to make. The first is that before the appeal process from us can get going an appellant needs a Statement of Reasons. For some time I have set down a standard for producing that statement as far as the chairman is concerned. We are still not there in terms of meeting that standard as close as I would like it to be and that is one area where we are causing some delay. There is also a question about how then the case is progressed because from that point the Statement of Reasons may have been produced by a chairman in long hand or on a tape or something of that kind which then has to be typed, so there is an area for Neil to deal with in terms of the time that it takes there. We, I think, are reasonably good when we actually get an application for leave to appeal. That is processed by our chairmen reasonably quickly and that is within a few days.

  52. Can you give me some targets? You have mentioned a few days and you have talked about standards but have you, within the standards you have laid out, set targets for each of those areas? Within what period do you expect the full written reasons?
  (Judge Harris) Ten working days. That is the standard. I can tell you that there have been some instances that have been drawn to my attention where the delay has been far in excess of that and I have had no hesitation in referring those cases to the Lord Chancellor. It is completely unacceptable for chairmen to sit on these cases and not produce the statements in time. I have got some sympathy because very often they do not get them until some time after they have dealt with the case and they have to try to rack their brains, as it were. That is a problem that we have to face. As I say, I have no hesitation in referring bad cases to the Lord Chancellor with a view to removing somebody if they are not capable of doing it. We are not there. By and large the full-timers have got into a position where they produce their statements within that ten day timescale, some still need some pressure. Part-timers are much more difficult because they are not with us, we do not have the same degree of control over them. They may be on holiday, they may be on leave, they may be doing a tricky case or a case that is absorbing their time and they then get a request from us saying "please will you provide the full statement". They are not with us and we do not have the same degree of control over them. As you know, they handle something like 80 per cent of all tribunal cases, so they are a very large constituent of our effort. All I can do is to say how important it is. I have recently issued a protocol in which I have reiterated the ten day period and I have said that we are going to chase them much more vigorously than we did in the past, and I have made it perfectly clear that if there is a continued failure to produce them then it is a matter for the Lord Chancellor. That sort of pressure is pressure that I can exert on my part of the process. In other parts of the process obviously there are administrative steps to be taken and we are clearly also addressing those to get these cases as quickly as possible to the Commissioner.

  53. I remember the evidence being presented to us that even once the papers had been produced there was a delay in transferring those papers from you to the Commissioners. Is that one of these administrative procedures that you are now looking at and tightening up?
  (Mr Ward) The position should be that they should go forthwith, there is no reason for them to be delayed on our part. Once we have the papers back from the chairman who has considered the reasons for leave to appeal and granted the leave to appeal the cases should go, and our staff are clear on that. We have reissued guidance on the handling of all elements of the process of Commissioners' cases and we have produced this year a basic training package across all the modules for all the elements of our service, specifically to train new staff but also for other staff through a retraining, refresher training process. Training on handling Commissioners' cases is within that process. We are alert to the need to move cases through. There should be no reason why cases should not proceed straight away to Commissioners once we know the Commissioner has written asking for a file, there is no reason for that not to turn round. Where we envisage any bottlenecks, for example, in the typing of statements we might have received from chairmen we bring in additional typists in order to pursue any backlogs. When we get cases back from Commissioners you will have seen in the targets the Secretary of State set for us this year that there has been introduced a target for rehearing of Commissioners' cases that come to us, which is six weeks less than the waiting time for normal cases, first tier cases.

Dr Naysmith

  54. When you were before us last we were a bit concerned, and you were concerned too, and you frankly admitted it, about the quality of the administration within the Appeals Service. From what you have said already you are much more upbeat about many things now. Since then do you think that you have had the necessary investment and assistance to improve the quality of administration? Has that been forthcoming?
  (Mr Ward) Our funding is at the same level as we received when we came to the Committee last time. If you remember last time, although there were concerns about the quality of administration, we personally did not have concerns about the level of funding we had, it was about the deployment of the resources we had at our disposal: were we using our funds effectively; were we handling cases once rather than twice; were we removing levels of rework within the system? I still hold to that position. I think we have adequate funds to run the number of tribunals we need to run given the venues that we have. We have made a substantial investment in the accommodation in our tribunals nationally to bring venues that were not of a standard that we regarded as an acceptable public standard up to scratch and to bring in new venues wherever we have been able to do so. We have spent £1.2/1.3 million this year on that. We plan to spend the same next year and the year after that. We have invested over £2 million in training, both of administrative staff and judicial staff, which was an issue before the Committee last time. We have invested two million in IT this year, we are planning to spend something like another £3½ million in each of the next two years. I do not think shortage of funds is an issue for us.

  55. You have used the funds you have got wisely and you have been adequately supported?
  (Mr Ward) That is my belief, yes.
  (Judge Harris) I can say from my perspective that the administration has improved since I started in March 1998, I have no doubt about that, and I pay tribute to Neil and his senior team for bringing about many of those changes. That is not to say, as I think you drew out, that there are still places, centres and offices that are not doing as well as they should be doing. It is a curious thing that they do not necessarily always remain the same. When I started they were different offices that were performing badly but are now doing extremely well. It is probably the chemistry of a particular office, the quality of the leadership that office has and the quality of the staff at any particular time. In broad terms there has been a significant improvement in administrative support, I have to say that, but there are patches where clearly Neil recognises as well as anybody else that there is plenty of room for improvement.

  56. One of the other things that we were worried about and you were worried about was the possibility of staff reductions in the year 2000-01. Have these in fact taken place or, if they have not taken place, have you been able to use the staff you have got for the better ratio of cases to staff?
  (Mr Ward) We have changed the nature of the staff since we were last at the Committee. We had substantial numbers of contract staff, fixed term contract staff and casual staff. We have now got high levels of permanent staff who have got a long term vested interest in the quality and the nature of this service. That is bringing its rewards in terms of people's commitment to the job and to delivering appeals. People enjoy working in the service that we are in. We have got about 920 staff in post, 928 staff in post, which is about the same level, interestingly, as we had previously. What we have not got is the same staff necessarily in post that we had then. We have kept the best of those staff who were on contract, we have kept the best of those staff who were on casual and we have converted them to long term civil servants.

  57. Is it more expensive, now you have converted to long term?
  (Mr Ward) No.

  58. It is always an interesting question when you move from contract staff to permanent staff.
  (Mr Ward) No. I think—touch wood—we pay them the same. Actually it is a better investment in the staff because we were training our contract staff, we were training our casual staff, at the same levels as we were training permanent staff but we were only retaining them for up to two years. We needed to train them at that level because they had a job to do when they were working for us. It is better value for money in the quality of staff we have and the nature of staff.

  59. I was interested to hear you say earlier on that you are not anticipating a huge case load increase with Housing Benefit and Council Tax. Given some of the things we have heard on this Committee about Housing Benefit and Council Tax maybe you are being a little bit optimistic. Are you anticipating any extra resources to deal with these extra cases?
  (Mr Ward) We have had support to match the case load. What we have by and large been funded on is both the money that we needed in order to set up, to adjust our systems in order to cater for Housing Benefit appeals coming in and we are ready and waiting now to take on Housing Benefit appeals properly from the end of May in anticipation of 2 July. We have also been funded on a case basis at an average of 15,000 I think is the level of intake that is anticipated. I do not think anyone has any better idea of the range. We have looked at the survey of local authorities and they do not really have an idea because they can only judge on the number of appeals they have reviewed.

4   Not available at time of publication. Back

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