Examination of Witnesses (Questions 85
WEDNESDAY 25 APRIL 2001
Chairman: Can I welcome some senior staff from
the Benefits Agency led by Mr Tony Edge, Head of Field Operations
in Wales, Mr Archie Roy, Acting Director of Field Operations in
Scotland and Northern, and Mr John Sumner, who is the Disability
and Carer Benefits Director. Can we go straight into some of the
areas we were talking about this morning. We are particularly
interested in the effects of the decision making and appeals changes
as they affect the Benefits Agency.
85. As you know we have been discussing with
the Appeals Service various matters, including the numbers of
appeals which on the face of it has fallen. What would your view
be of that? Is that a realistic reduction or are there other reasons
(Mr Edge) There have been some changes there. I am
actually Director of Midlands, Wales and the South of England,
I look after the whole of that.
86. Why do you not set the scene, there may
be one or two bits and pieces that you want to bring up?
(Mr Edge) I would like to apologise first for Alexis
Cleveland not being here, if I could do that. Archie Roy, on my
left, looks after Scotland and the North, as you say, and John
Sumner looks after Disability Benefits from Blackpool. If I could
just say a few things about the improvements we have made as well
as the Appeals Service because we are working very closely with
them, it is important to say that. We have a high level management
committee which I and Neil will sit on. The throughput of appeals
is about 250,000 a year and that is the kind of figure that I
think Neil Ward was discussing. We have actually got rid of an
enormous lot of appeals backlog that we did have. Last July, for
example, within that 250,000 intake in a year we had 45,000 outstanding
with us. We have now got that down to 27,500. I wanted to put
that into context. Also, very importantly, we have got rid of
an awful lot of arrears of the old cases. In April 1999 we had
2,300 cases over 90 days old. We have got that down to 452, we
had a real purge on those. As with Neil, we do believe that the
big issues for us are (a) improving the DMA process to make sure
that as many people as possible do not have to go through the
appeals process by satisfying them before that starts, (b) by
improving our training of appeals presenters, appeals officers
and DMA staff, and also continually trying to drive down the end
to end process, which was mentioned before. As far as the customer
is concerned what really counts is how long it takes from the
appeal being submitted to the end of it. Moving on to your question,
we take the view that, interestingly enough, the way appeals have
moved in the last year, the disability appeals have gone up by
about 170 per cent and others down by 15 per cent. Overall we
have seen a movement of about 2.5 per cent more in the last year.
That is our current position.
87. Is it a realistic position though? There
have been various changes, of course, one or two of which you
have highlighted, the shorter deadlines for appeal, for example.
Have all of these things had an effect? If they have had an effect
are there not still a lot of people out there who really would
like to appeal and should appeal but the new system has put them
off? In that case that is not an improvement in the service, is
(Mr Edge) That is not a sense I have. I cannot prove
that one way or the other.
88. Those things must have had an effect.
(Mr Edge) The numbers seem to be quite consistent.
Obviously there are a number of people, I think it is about 20
per cent from memory, who are satisfied before the appeal process
on the Income Support, JSA type benefits where we are able to
satisfy them and put the case right where we have wrongly done
it or new evidence is brought forward. That part of the process
should reduce those cases over a period. The better we get at
that, and the more hopefully we can do that, the more people get
confidence in that process. In other parts it is seen that people
are very keen to appeal, especially in the medical area, which
was discussed earlier, and I think Neil was saying that medical
appeals are now 70 per cent of the total.
89. You mentioned the massive increase in DLA
appeals particularly, why is that the case? You are saying it
is happening and you are citing medical appeals as things that
people are particularly wanting to appeal against. Is that the
fault of the Benefits Agency or is it the changing nature of society?
Why that particular line? Why that particular appeal?
(Mr Edge) I will start on that, if I may, about the
changing process partly. Prior to the DMA process the DLA had
a mandatory review process. Reconsideration process is not mandatory
and customers elect to go straight to appeal quite often. I think
maybe John could answer that more fully.
(Mr Sumner) Yes. The point Tony makes is essentially
correct. Prior to DMA, if a customer was dissatisfied with the
first tier decision they applied for a review of that decision
and that was a mandatory process that they had to go through and
it produced a detailed decision. In a sense it is very much like
the reconsideration process which is now being produced generically
across all benefits except that the reconsideration process is
optional whereas the previous review relating specifically to
DLA was not. A lot of customers are now opting, which they have
every right to do, to go straight for appeal. The other factor
which may have an influence is that previously with DLA and AA
benefits the time limits for appealing were three months in each
case. Now with one month I think there perhaps is a degree of
urgency to get your appeal in so that you do not miss out. This
is the sort of feedback we have had from welfare rights agencies.
90. You have mentioned the review process and
the appeal process, is there a huge difference between those two
(Mr Edge) There obviously is in a lot of respects.
First of all, the time taken through the process for the customer.
The customer goes through appeal process, we have already heard
the length of time from end to end. The review process, first
of all, with ourselves would, in fact, be much shorter than that
because we could deal with the customer, talk to them and go through
the case with them and really save them going through the whole
judicial process in essence. That is something we are trying to
do without at the same time, obviously, getting in the way of
their natural rights to go through that process.
91. Was it the right thing to do to change the
mandatory nature of the review or was it the wrong thing to do?
(Mr Sumner) I think DMA was intended to produce a
generic process across all benefits so this would be more understandable
to customers. Obviously a lot of our customers, quite a high proportion
of them, are in receipt of more than one benefit. I think the
other thing is that their processes should be the same so that
they would be understandable and customers would not be confused
by having different rules for different benefits.
92. Can I just follow on from that. As John
Sumner will recall, the Committee had a very interesting visit
to Warbreck House in my constituency, Chair, and talked to the
staff up there who were very concerned to continue to deliver
what they believe is a high quality service giving detailed information
to claimants. It was clear on our visit there that the introduction
of DMA was having unforeseen consequences on the application to
DLA and AA. We did discuss up there whether or not DMA should
be applied in the same way to DLA applications and AA applications.
For example, we were told that prior to the introduction of DMA,
claimants for Disability Living Allowance were given much more
detailed information about why their claims were disallowed and
then would go through the review process. It was felt that there
was a lot more customer satisfaction in that scheme than there
is now. So, although I understand fully the fact that the decision
making and the appeals process has to be a generic one across
all benefits, is there any chance of looking again at how it applies
specifically to DLA and AA to see whether or not it can be amended
to meet the particular needs of those benefits where the decision
maker is making decisions in a rather different way, perhaps,
from other benefits where most of the other benefits are purely
factual, tick boxes, you either get it or you do not? With DLA
it is self-assessment by the individual and the decision maker
has to make judgments . To follow on from Laurence's questions,
and indeed your answers, is there an opportunity for re-examining
how the DMA process applies specifically to DLA and AA?
(Mr Sumner) I think certainly we will want to look
at that. What we have tried to do with DMA is to make a better
interface between the customers and ourselves in the sense that
first tier decisions now have a help line number where somebody
can ring up to get a verbal explanation of their decision before
they decide whether to accept the decision or, indeed, to appeal.
Then there is the reconsideration process which is full which,
as you rightly say, is not as detailed as the previous review
process but the intention was to put it in plainer, more easily
understood language. The review process tended to be rather lengthy
and daunting and I can quite understand why some of my staff said
that in their view was a better process because from their point
of view technically it was very much more detailed. I think there
is a case to be made that customers perhaps would prefer more
plain language which is easily understood. I take your point that
we perhaps do not yet understand fully the customer dynamics on
this one and I think at some point we will have to do some more
work on it.
(Mr Edge) If I can add to that. I think there is a
lot more training needed on DMA. DMA is a simple concept but quite
complicated in reality. We are taking forward additional training
on DMA again across the piece to try and get it more specific
also to the benefits involved. The Standards Committee, who work
closely with us on that, have made a lot of recommendations in
that area. We are trying to get some training in place as we speak
on DMA as we move forward. We put in place full training at the
beginning but now we recognise more training is needed to get
it spot on in essence.
93. Can we deal with the process of appeals
by yourselves. You are required to collect information on how
your part of the appeals process is operating, in other words
the time taken by the Benefits Agency to prepare submissions once
the appeal has been lodged.
(Mr Edge) Yes.
94. We have a problem as a Committee because
we are trying to measure what progress has been made as far as
clearance rates are concerned and we are particularly concerned
about the perspective of your customers, as you can appreciate.
One quick question, from your perspective how do you define clearance
times? Is it end to end, appeal lodged to final hearing?
(Mr Edge) No.
95. Well, what?
(Mr Edge) We have an internal target which is that
we should clear 95 per cent in 90 days in the Income Support and
Child Benefit and Social Fund. Our average clearance time is 40
days, as I think was mentioned in the earlier session.
96. You were here, I think, for the evidence
taken from the Appeals Service.
(Mr Edge) Yes, I was.
97. What is the phrase you use to describe end
to end from when you first get information of claims and when
it goes from your hands to the Appeals Service eventually and
ends up being resolved?
(Mr Edge) The total end to end from the customer's
point of view?
98. Yes, what do you call that? Do you call
that clearance time?
(Mr Edge) No, that is end to end, I would say, across
99. Do you not think we need to have some sort
of category of statistic here?
(Mr Edge) Total clearance time.