Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 13 March 2001
[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]
Draft Pensions Appeal Tribunals (Additional Rights of Appeal) Regulations 2001
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Pensions Appeal Tribunals (Additional Rights of Appeal) Regulations 2001.
The Chairman: With this we may discuss the draft Pensions Appeal Tribunals (Late Appeals) Regulations 2001.
Mr. Bayley: The regulations are compatible with convention rights.
I shall set the scene for the changes. The Government believe that extending war pensioners' appeal rights and introducing a six-month appeal time limit strikes the right balance between the appellant's rights and his responsibilities. Extending appeal rights would provide a more clear, cohesive and consistent approach to decision making by giving more war pensioners the opportunity to settle their dispute in a fair, just and impartial way. A six-month appeal limit will ensure that appeals are prepared and heard closer to the time that decisions are made. The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, which received Royal Assent in July, set out the principles for the extension of appeal rights and the new appeal time limits.
The regulations that we are discussing today set out the detail of the extent of those new rights and the circumstances under which an appeal may be heard if it is received outside the new time limits. There are currently two time limits for appeals within the war pension scheme, of three and 12 months respectively. Some appeals are not subject to a time limit. Much of war pensions appeals legislation was established during the second world war, more than half a century ago. It has not been subject to detailed parliamentary scrutiny and has remained largely untouched and unreformed for almost a lifetime. There can be little other, if any, legislation relating to appeal rights of which that can be said.
When the legislation was drafted, its provisions were flexible, for understandable reasons, and recognised the real life difficulties that people faced at the time. The test for whether a late appeal should be accepted is a good example of that. The appellant was required to satisfy a reasonable excuse test only for delaying the bringing of an appeal. There was no requirement to specify the reasons for lateness. Nevertheless, some decisions, although subject to a complaints procedure to war pensions committees, were made unappealable to the independent pensions appeal tribunals. The practical effect of that unreformed legislation has been unhelpful to the expectations of appellants, unhelpful to modern-day tribunals and unhelpful to arriving at fair, just and impartial decisions.
Tribunals are placed in the invidious position of having to consider whether the original decision, made perhaps decades earlier, was correct. That is burdensome, time-consuming and wholly unsatisfactory. Tribunals have had to attempt to picture the appellant's circumstances as they existed when a decision was first made in an altogether different age, when different medical and legal understanding prevailed. That situation could not remain.
The appeal time limit set out in the 2000 Act will require appellants from April 2001 to appeal closer to the time that a decision was made, when the facts of the matter are clearer and do not result from subjective distant memory assumptions. The Act provided that interim decisions will retain their current three-month limit, but that all other appeals would be subject to a more generous but uniform six-month limit. That six-month limit as opposed to the three-month limit that is general in social security legislation recognises, in part, the esteem in which the Government hold war pensioners. It also strikes a balance between the war pension scheme, which has not previously been subject to a uniform time limit, and the social security scheme, which has been subject to a uniform, but shorter, appeals time limit for some time.The House went over much of that ground when it debated the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill before it was enacted last year. However, it may help the Committee if I briefly describe the purpose of the regulations and the consultation that we had about them.
The late appeals regulations provide that a tribunal may, in prescribed circumstances, allow an appeal to be brought not later than 12 months after the expiry of the uniform statutory appeal time limit. The Government have provided in the regulations some transitional protection for decisions made before the new time limit comes into force in April. Except for those interim decisions that are subject to a three-month limit, claimants who receive a decision before 9 April 2001 will have a full year from the date of notification in which to lodge an appeal. The War Pensions Agency is in the process of notifying these provisions to war pensioners, so that new and existing war pensioners are aware of their rights.
Regulation 4 of the late appeals regulations prescribes the situations under which a late appeal may be accepted by tribunals when the claimant was unable to bring the late appeal within the time limit but the appeal was none the less
``brought as soon as was reasonably practicable in the circumstances''.
The situations prescribed are relatively broad; the regulation is intended to cover the circumstances most likely to delay the claim. The main reason for delay was cited as ``death or serious illness''. As a result of consultation, we added the circumstance of the death of a spouse or close dependant. The delay might also be caused by a postal strike, or the Secretary of State having failed to notify the claimant of a decision, or other ``exceptional circumstances''. That final provision was introduced following consultation with the ex-service charities and the ex-service community.
The situations prescribed essentially replace the previous reasonable excuse provisions, providing a more readily accessible and transparent process for pensioners and enabling war pensioners to know when a late appeal may be accepted by the independent appeals tribunals.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Will the Minister clarify whether anything in the regulations relates to late claims, as opposed to late appeals? If there is no relation, will he tell us whether there is consistency between the deadlines and time scales for late appeals and those for late claims? All the arguments made for showing generosity towards late appeals could apply to late claims, but I am not convinced that the provisions are precisely parallel.
Mr. Bayley: In relation to late claims, I can give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks. It will remain possible for someone who served in Her Majesty's armed forces to make a claim for a war pension at any timeyears or decades after the injury. We believe that that is consistent with the change in time limits for appeals, because conditions may manifest themselves years after injury. People may feel unable to claim at the time because of a trauma due to a wartime experience or injury. Late claims may still be made.
The additional rights of appeal regulations are intended to provide war pensioners with the right of appeal to independent tribunals against most war pensions decisions. That includes for the first time most decisions on allowances paid in addition to the basic war pension. The Government intend that they should be effective for all decisions notified on or after 9 April. It is intended that appeal rights will usually extend to war pensioners when a decision has been made that either refuses or stops an award, sets or changes an award, or sets or varies a date from which an award has effect. To avoid any misunderstanding about appeal rights, the notification letter informing war pensioners of a decision will also inform them of their right of appeal.
The extension of appeal rights allows war pensioners a choice. They will be able to continue to have their complaints heard by the various war pensions committees, if that is what they want. Alternatively, they will be able to have their case heard by an independent pensions appeal tribunal. War pensions committees are a countrywide network of statutory bodies consisting of volunteers appointed by the Secretary of State. Unlike the independent tribunals, which can make decisions that are binding on the Secretary of State, the war pensions committees can only make non-binding recommendations. From 9 April this year, that will be a choice for war pensioners to make. They did not have that choice before.
I trust that the Committee will agree that this is a sensible and balanced package of reform.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): When we debated the changes under the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, we had a friendly and helpful discussion in which all the points made by the Opposition were, more or less, taken on board. My comments today are largely geared towards obtaining an update on the situation. All hon. Members would probably agree that we have reached a point at which we should consider some of the administrative changes made by the Government. We welcome the additional rights that have been introduced. As time has gone on, it has become more and more obvious that war pensioners need a broader basis of appeal. The Government's introduction of that is a good idea. We are not arguing about the substance.
I shall refer to the debate that we had during the 19th sitting of the Committee considering the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, on 17 February 2000. Concerning where the appeal rights lie, the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) made it clear that, understandably, he did not want the appeals process clogged up with appeals about administrative decisions. I am sure that the Minister knows that administrative decisions can occasionally cause distress. What sort of administrative decisions and process would be involved?
Another issue that was discussed at length in Committee was the backlog and how long it is currently taking to deal with it. I should put it on the record that I am the daughter of a war widow who obtained her pension on the basis of an appeal. I was aged 12 at the time, but I was conscious of the difficulty that she experienced during that appeal. Luckily, she was persistentI probably owe my persistence to herand her appeal was successful. However, the appeal took a long time, and appeals continue to do so. During the debate, the Minister of State said that it takes 255 days to clear an appeal, and that it was intended to reduce that to 150 days. What progress has been made on that? The waiting time for appeals is 126 weeksor it was a year ago. Has that decreased? I understand that new appeals are being dealt with within an average of 14 weeks, for which I commend the War Pensions Agency. Will the Minister confirm that?
Given the understandable desire to reduce the length of time taken, concern was expressed about the balance of where the speeding up should come. As the Minister said, those involved in appeals are often elderly and in distressed circumstances, and I am grateful that the Government have introduced as a reason for delay the death of a spouse or close relative. However, it would not be desirable for the burden of proof to be put on an appellant in order to keep within time scales. Will the Minister assure me that the War Pensions Agency will not use that as an excuse for delay?
The Minister has, rightly, spoken to several of the professional associations, and we understood that the British Legion was happy with the six-month limit. Has anything happened to change that? I assume from his comments that it has not. If the service organisations are happy, so are we, but I would not like them to feel under pressure to agree to a six-month limit. I hope that the six months will be interpreted as generously as possible for people in distressing circumstances.
In response to a question that I asked in Committee, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), assured me that transitional arrangements would be made. I was not sure from the Minister's remarks that people who are currently in the system will not suddenly find that they are subject to time limits when they have been used to a system without them. What transitional arrangements will be made for those already in the system? If the explanation is too complex or lengthy, I am happy for him to write to me.
The matter is not covered in the regulations, but we received assurances from the Minister of State about the intention to keep service personnel on the appeal tribunal. However, he was not prepared to specify that in the Bill, and I should be grateful for an assurance that that is still the intention. Obviously, the more often we have that in writing, the more helpful it would be.