Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 85 - 99)



  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.

Mr Robertson

  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 for it?
  (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.

Mr Robertson

  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 it?
  (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 processes?
  (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.

Mrs Humble

  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.

Mr Thomas

  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 both agencies.

  99. Do you not think we need to have some sort of category of statistic here?
  (Mr Edge) Total clearance time.

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