HC Deb 18 April 1988 vol 131 cc653-60

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dorrell]

10.27 pm
Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will recall that last week Mr. Speaker accepted an application by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) for a debate under Standing Order No. 20.

The debate was on the effects of the Social Security Act 1986 on claimants in receipt of DHSS benefits. Mr. Speaker rightly adopted the rare practice of granting a debate under Standing Order No. 20. Opposition Members were fully aware of the growing anger and concern of the vast majority of British people. To some extent that anger and concern was reflected in the atmosphere in the House last week. The anger of Opposition Members was evident, and the Opposition Front Bench made it clear that people outside this place were becoming aware of the worst excesses of this Tory Government.

The uneasiness of Government Back Benchers was indicative of their uncertainty about the social services review and its effect on hundreds of thousands of claimants, be they old, young, unemployed, sick or disabled. This aspect is part of the general debate about the DHSS and the legislation's effects on the appeal system.

The Government have ignored all the approaches made by every strand of society—the churches, the voluntary sector and citizens advice bureaux. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) has said that the CAB was infiltrated by a bunch of Trots—the sort of statement that we begin to expect from the more reactionary Conservative Members. The Government cannot be persuaded to listen to anyone on the results of the changes in the Social Security Act and in the appeals procedure.

The appeals machinery in the DHSS has been in crisis for a long time. Some people have waited as long as nine months for their appeal to be heard. Everyone should recognise that there is something radically wrong with a system that was designed to give claimants the opportunity to appeal against DHSS decisions and have their appeal heard by an independent body, so that they were seen to get a fair deal and their entitlements under the regulations.

I shall refer to two cases out of many. Mrs. Maher applied for a dietary addition and her case began in September 1977. I wrote to the Secretary of State and to Judge Byrt, the president of the social security appeal tribunals, and her case was eventually heard later in the year,. During the eight months she waited for the case to be heard, she was denied the dietary additions to keep her well and she lost two stone.

Mr. Doyle's case started in June 1987 and was heard in February this year, after constant correspondence with the DHSS and the Secretary of State. That is an indictment of the DHSS procedures, which should make access available to appeal tribunals so that claimants' cases are heard within a reasonable time of their application being submitted.

There are two DHSS offices in my constituency—the Garston office and the Childwall Valley office. So that the House will not think that I have picked out two particular cases, I shall recite the list of cases sent to me by the CAB in February this year: T1944 Client applied for mobility allowance on 1.7.87., claim disallowed on 22.7.87. Appealed 14.8.87. tribunal listed for 10.2.88. 6 month wait. T919 Appeal against overpayment. Appeal received by the DHSS 25.3.86 tribunal been adjourned several times by DHSS to obtain more evidence. Still no date for hearing. Client very anxious over accusation from DHSS which was carried on nearly 2 years. T1704 Appeal adjourned on 10.7.87 because client was too ill to attend still no date listed for new appeal. 6 months. T1927 Appeal received 22.5.87. hearing listed for 26.1.88., adjourned because of incomplete tribunal—already 9 months. T1926 Appeal received 29.5.87. appeal listed for 16.9.87 (5 months) but tribunal adjourned because papers sent to wrong address, next hearing listed for 26.1.88., 8 months total … T1754 Appeal received by DHSS on 9.10.86. date of appeal list 28.7.87. (9 months). This was for a cooker, an essential item. Papers again sent to wrong address, new appeal set for 8.1.88. 1 year 2 months later.

If Ministers try to defend and justify such delays. which affect the most vulnerable sections of our society, it will give us an even clearer indication of the Government's lack of consideration and concern for the poor and the weak in our society. It is an absolute scandal that Ministers have made excuses and criticised the take-up campaigns launched by the welfare rights people in an attempt to ensure that claimants knew their entitlements and that they were properly represented.

When I complained about the delays, I received a letter from the local office of the DHSS saying that it was due to the backlog of appeals. On the question of single payments, it is significant to note that in a period of 18 months the budget was more or less halved from £390 million to £150 million. That may well be one of the reasons for the delays in hearing appeals. I am convinced that the Government have used delays as a ploy do deprive claimants of their rights. They have elongated the period of appeals so that the claimants are caught by the new regulations. It is an absolute scandal that the DHSS should be placed in that position because the Government are not prepared to make the trained additional staff available to deal with the so-called backlog of appeals.

It is significant, too, that the president of the appeal tribunals, Judge Byrt, to whom I wrote about two of the cases to which I have referred, said of the statistics that he set out in his long report: I would not however wish anyone to think that I or anyone in the Social Security Appeal Tribunals is not concerned about the misery and hardship lying behind the facts. In spite of what the statistics say about the undoubted increase in the number of appeals being lodged, they disguise the fact that in Liverpool, for example, there are pockets where appeals have increased by about 85 per cent. Those appeals have been the subject of long delays. It is no wonder, therefore, that Judge Byrt in his reply should abrogate responsibility for the hardship and misery caused by the delays. He makes it clear that the statistics ought to be looked at and that the delays in the appeals system should be considered by the Department because of the misery caused to people.

We know that much of the DHSS appeal system will be ended by new regulations and that appeals will no longer be possible over single payments. In many cases those payments are important to people who have to claim for additional items either on the birth of a baby or on getting a council flat for the first time. I have had cases in my constituency of people applying for bed and bedding who have had to lie on the floor while waiting for the decision of an appeals tribunal. In this dynamic economy of 1988, that is the sort of situation that arises in patches in this country of popular capitalism. That is constantly ignored by the Government.

Today we have seen evidence of the uncaring nature of the Conservative party and its complete disregard of the people who are appealing to it. The Government have completely disregarded those who have constantly warned them that the pressure placed on these people will eventually reach the point at which it will explode in the Government's face. The sooner that that happens the better, because the Government listen to nothing and in all probability only direct action by people will shift them.

The Government have not become complacent: they have become arrogant and believe that everything that they say has been written on tablets of stone. They bring legislation to the House and no Conservative Member dares to oppose it or contest what the Government are doing to the poorer people in our society. Conservative Members know that week after week they hear in their surgeries and at meetings complaints of the kind that I have outlined. They know what is going on, because they must see it in their constituencies. It is a disgrace that when the Government are being criticised Conservative Members can sit on the Benches and disregard the opportunity to do something to help.

Between 1974 and 1979 I did not fear to go into the Lobby against the then Labour Government when I thought that they were wrong. It is about time that more Conservative Members recognised that many of the things done by the Government deserve to be called wicked by the people who say that the Government are composed of wicked people. I have illustrated what will ensue as a result of the policies being pursued by the Government against the poor and, in particular, the elderly.

Today I received a letter from a 94-year-old woman who tells me that her benefit has been cut to £39 a week. She has no idea why it has been cut, and at the age of 94 no one would expect her to have. She does not understand what is going on. Can any Conservative Member, or can the Minister, justify that cut to a 94-year-old woman? How can I or the Minister answer her?

Time and again the Government were warned that such cases would emerge. I have had another letter from a 78-year-old woman faced with a similar situation. Such letters will pour into the House in the coming months. Members of all parties will receive letters from constituents who do not understand why a country that claims to be, and still is, one of the world's richest can treat its old, its sick and its poor in such a way.

It is the responsibility of the Minister not to roll out a litany of figures and tell us the cause of this, that and the other, but to say that the cases that I have outlined are only the tip of the iceberg. He should say that they will not continue to be dealt with in the way that they have been dealt with in the past.

I want an assurance from the Minister that no staff cuts in the DHSS will result from the fact that the appeals system will no longer apply to single payments. There are plenty of empty offices in every major town and city that could be used to help to speed up the appeals system generally. There is no excuse for the Government's complacency. I hope that the Minister will respond positively and ensure that there is immediate action to end the misery and hardship of hundreds of thousands of people.

10.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Portillo)

I listened with great care to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), despite his remark about the Government not listening. The hon. Gentleman has raised a matter of great concern both to me and to His Honour Judge Byrt, who is the president of the social security and medical appeal tribunals.

At the outset, I wish to make it quite clear that I wholeheartedly agree that the delays experienced by appellants in some parts of the country must be reduced. I shall outline the measures being taken both by the DHSS and by Judge Byrt to overcome the present problems. Before doing so, I remind the hon. Gentleman that in 1984 we established an independent body to administer all social security appeals, not just those for supplementary benefit. The creation of an independent administration has been seen, both in this House and outside it, as a very positive step.

On the problem of delays, in Great Britain the average time for a case to get to a hearing from the lodging of an appeal has steadily increased over the past four years from 12.9 weeks in the second quarter of 1984 to 20.3 weeks in the second quarter of 1987. Those are the latest available figures. Almost certainly it is now longer than that in some parts of the country. The reason lies in the marked increase in the number of appeals. In Great Britain in the second quarter of 1984, 72,000 social security appeals were made, while by the second quarter of 1987 the equivalent figure was 176,000. That represents an increase of 144 per cent. over the four-year period. Appeals against decisions on supplementary benefit, both the weekly benefit and single payments, have increased by 62 per cent. over the same period, from 62,000 to 100,000.

The number of claims to benefit, and especially single payments, have increased markedly over the period and the number of appeals is partly a reflection of that. In addition, the whole process of the social security reviews leading up to the Green and White Papers and the changes brought about by the Social Security Act 1986, have put and kept social security very much in the public eye. There have been numerous take-up campaigns throughout the country that have encouraged people to apply for their possible entitlements to benefit. Such campaigns cannot always be accurately targeted and, as a result, more people have had claims refused. Therefore, more appeals are likely.

It will be clear to the hon. Gentleman that both social security local offices and the tribunals have been under increasing pressures in recent years, and we have sought to respond to that broadly in three ways. First, on structure, we have taken steps to adapt the social security system to the needs of the 1990s. The introduction of income support this April should simplify the system for all concerned. In particular, the replacement of the present system of single payments with the new social fund, which will provide grants and offer interest-free loans both to people in receipt of income support and otherwise and have its own system of reviews, should result in a very considerable easing of the burden on the social security appeal system.

Single payments amount to almost 40 per cent. of all appeals, so their removal will ease administration in the president's office and in the DHSS. The cost of an appeal is about £200. which is far higher than the value of single payments, which average about £80. The new system of income support will be far simpler for staff to administer and for claimants to understand. Neither the local offices nor the tribunals will have to deal with the vast number of expensive appeals for relatively small amounts.

By those structural means, it is expected that the over-burdened tribunals will, by the end of the year, have a more manageable work load. I therefore disagree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks as reported in the Liverpool Echo: The benefit system is in crisis and things are going to get much worse when the new social security system comes into operation in April. The opposite effect is likely to occur.

Secondly, among the improvements, we have sought to ensure that the social security offices and the tribunals have more staff to carry out their tasks. Thus, the element of social security local office staffing that is allocated for appeals work has been increased between 1984–85 and 1987–88, while the administrative staff of the president's office increased from 427 to 709 over the same period. Special efforts are currently being made by thre president to reduce delays. His staffing requirements have been met in full for the next six months to help to achieve that end, and, in the autumn of this year, a further staffing review will take place, with a view to achieving further significant reductions in delay.

Thirdly, we have sought to improve the administrative procedures for handling appeals within the DHSS. A DHSS central management services team has recently completed a study of procedures for appeals work in central, regional and local social security offices. Because of my awareness of the concern of hon. Members over appeal delays, I have arranged for copies of that report of be made available in the Library. Each of the recommendations of the report has been carefully considered, and a programme for implementation of those that are agreed will shortly be drawn up.

It is relevant also to refer to the operational strategy, which is the term used for the computerisation of social security benefits. The plan to computerise the assessment and payment of income support is on course for implementation over the coming years. That will simplify the administration of income support by improving the accuracy of initial assessments and the quality of explanations to claimants. Such improvements should thereby help to reduce the number of appeals.

However, as I said, the major problem for the tribunal system has been the marked increase in the volume of appeals in the last year or so. While within a social security office the manager has scope to redeploy his staff to meet changing work patterns, I am aware that that is not the case for the presidential organisation, in which all administrative staff are solely concerned with servicing appeals.

As the president administers a wholly independent organisation, it would be wrong for me to speak here on his behalf. However, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, Judge Byrt has written a constructive statement that sets out the practical difficulties presently facing his organisation and the steps that he is taking to overcome them. I have already placed a copy of his statement in the Library so that all hon. Members may have the opportunity of reading it. However, it might be helpful if I quote some extracts from it, although I readily admit that I am quoting selectively, because the hon. Gentleman and others have the whole letter to refer to.

In the early part of the letter there is a narrative on how the problems of the SSAT have built up. However, the narrative ends on an optimistic note. Between August 1987 and the end of the year, the number of tribunals held and cases cleared has steadily increased, mainly as the result of the arrival of a new influx of staff, recruited and trained in the summer months, following their nominal allocation to OPSSAT on 1 April 1987. The monthly session rate has increased from 3,558 in July to 4,478 in December; and the figure for cases cleared has risen from 15,740 to 18,803.

The three smaller regions in the south and south-west have now reduced their waiting time to an average nine weeks; with fine tuning, this period can be reduced still further. Each of the four bigger regions in the north of England and Scotland have begun to make appreciable inroads into their backlog. The main disadvantage they suffer is the size of that backlog, which hangs round their necks like the proverbial albatross and slows them down.

Judge Byrt set out some of the achievements of the OPSSAT, which are worth recording. Between July 1986 and December 1987, the number of sessions increased from 2,730 to 4,478, the number of cases cleared increased from 10,135 to 18,803, and the staff increased from 527 to 709. Judge Byrt commented that the figures reflected the enhanced efficiency of an organisation bedded down and familiar with its work. Although delay is currently running at an overall figure of 19 weeks, this is now on an improving curve, having peaked in July at about 21 weeks.

The conclusion of his letter is: OPSSAT is committed to doing what it can to improve the position on tribunal delays in any way it can. In this, the organisation is supported by a staff whose morale is sustained by the belief that they are fulfilling a positive and worthwhile serve in the community. It is difficult to assess the time when that service will be restored to the standards which OPSSAT was created to achieve. The Spring and Summer of this may yet hold surprises for us. My estimate is that November 1988 will see the improvements we all seek and I believe that to be a realistic expectation. The hon. Gentleman will know, too, that Judge Byrt has a series of comments to make about the specific problems in Liverpool. He has ensured that as much work as possible should be transferred away from Liverpool to relieve the burden of the appeals that are actually being heard in Liverpool. Southport supplementary benefit appeals, for example, are now being heard by the Southport tribunal instead of in Liverpool. It is hoped that the Skelmersdale work can be sent to Wigan. Obviously, those measures will help Liverpool. Judge Byrt concludes by stating: I have every expectation of heavy inroads into the Liverpool arrears by September. I very much share that hope.

Mr. Loyden

The Minister will have discovered from that correspondence that I have raised the matters on numerous occasions, both with regional organisations and with the president of the appeal tribunals. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those long delays in the local area could well have been overcome by opening up additional offices in the area? Approaches made by the CAB and myself fell on deaf ears when it came to opening new offices in order that procedures could be speeded up.

Mr. Portillo

I know that the hon. Gentleman has paid careful attention to the correspondence, so he will know that the problem that is being dealt with. In Liverpool, the appeals load accelerated from just 639 cases in August 1986 to 1,509 in December 1986. With the best will in the world, that was a very rapid rate of increase for anybody to be asked to deal with.

However, as I said to the hon. Gentleman at the beginning of the debate, I am not here to tell him that there is not a problem. I agree that there is a problem, and it is one that we very much wish to address. I want him to appreciate that within the DHSS and the OPSSAT the problems are being addressed with great vigour.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Eleven o'clock.