HC Deb 15 February 1993 vol 219 cc1-4
1. Mr. Michael

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the target period within which applicants for disability living allowance should receive a decision; and what target he has set for responding to representations from hon. Members on behalf of constituents in respect of applications for disability living allowance.

4. Mr. Sheerman

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what new steps he is taking to ensure that the delays in responding to applications for disability living allowance are eliminated.

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

Current targets are that 60 per cent. of applicants for disability living allowance should receive a decision within 30 days and 95 per cent. should do so within 55 days. However, the latter target is under review. The Benefits Agency has also undertaken to reply to correspondence from hon. Members within an average of 20 days.

I meet the chief executive of the Benefits Agency regularly to review progress. As I have already advised the House, the level of work outstanding on disability living allowance has been reduced to normal levels–60 per cent. of new claims are being cleared within 30 days and older cases are being targeted.

Mr. Michael

I have had a rash of letters from the head of the Benefits Agency since I tabled this question, but none met the 20-day target—most of them were replies to letters that had been hanging around on his desk for three months or more. Does the Minister recognise that by the time constituents go to their Member of Parliament they have often been trying to get sense out of the system in person, by letter and by telephone for a year or more? Does he also recognise that these are some of the most vulnerable people in our society? Whom does he want us to blame—the head of the Benefits Agency, for running a sloppy and incompetent administration? Or should we not blame the Secretary of State and seek his resignation?

Mr. Scott

If the hon. Gentleman was present for previous exchanges on the matter, he will know how much the Government and the agency regret the backlog that was caused by the early surge of claims for disability living allowance. I am confident that it is now under control and that targets will be met in future. As for letters, the agency gave priority to the clearance of claims. It is now writing to Members of Parliament with an up-to-date report on the way in which the claim have been decided.

Mr. Sheerman

Is the Minister aware of the widespread anxiety about the quality of decision making by the Benefits Agency on disability living allowance? If the quality of decision making is bad, it will store up a great deal more trouble and anxiety for the vulnerable people who are affected. Will the Minister give two assurances? First, will he thoroughly investigate every allegation in The Sunday Times article yesterday and report to the House? Secondly, will he give a belated Valentine to the people affected and say that no one will lose out as a result of knock-on effects or any other repercussion caused by the disgraceful circus of disorganisation?

Mr. Scott

No one will lose money, because the payment of any benefit that is awarded will be backdated to the time of the claim. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about the knock-on effects?"] As for other backlogs, outstanding letters from Members of Parliament should be cleared by the end of February. I believe that from then on we shall be in a steady state.

Mr. Alan Howarth

In considering the administrative practicalities of providing support for disabled people rapidly, sensitively and cost-effectively, as I know is his wish, will my right hon. Friend also look sympathetically at the case for providing cash rather than services to certain severely disabled people who would rather organise their own personal assistance? Is there any reason why the Government should not give a fair wind to the private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe)?

Mr. Scott

On the latter point, it will rest with local authorities from April this year to provide packages of community care. Local authorities are not enabled to pay cash, but they will be able to provide services. It is the intention of colleagues in the Department of Health that disabled people should be closely involved with the development of those packages. As the House already knows, I intend to legislate in the near future for a successor body to the independent living fund.

Mr. Spring

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that more than 200,000 people who were not benefiting previously have benefited from the introduction of the new disability living allowance? Is that not striking proof positive that the Government are mindful of the needs of the disabled and of helping constructively in that respect?

Mr. Scott

I well understand my hon. Friend's remarks and I am grateful to him for his support. The concept and, increasingly, the delivery of DLA has been spectacularly successful. Hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from it and the self-assessment system is working extremely well—better than any of the previous arrangements. The staff of the agency are to be congratulated on their achievement.

Mr. Frank Field

For those constituents who come to our surgeries because they are gaining no money from the benefits, could the Minister give us the timetable during which their claims will be met and paid?

Mr. Scott

I have already told the House what will happen to new claims, which will be met within targets. The Benefits Agency intends to ensure that all claims received up to December last year will be handled by April this year.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

May I thank my right hon. Friend for the way in which he responded to the embarrassement of riches in terms of the number of applicants for disability living allowance? Is it not worth pointing out that since 1979 the Government have increased spending on the long-term sick and disabled by 170 per cent?

Mr. Scott

That is true, and DLA will further increase that figure. About 370,000 awards are being made under DLA, which is a great achievement.

Mr. Dewar

Does the Minister accept, as he must on the evidence, that the DLA experience has been a disaster for the many applicants left in limbo and also for the benefits system? The news that many people, some with no money coming in from a benefit source, will have to wait until April will add to the distress. Does the right hon. Gentleman defend the distinction made by the chief executive of the Benefits Agency, who argues that no DLA file has been lost, although some are difficult to find? Has he seen the reports about a DLA filing system which does not fit the files and is 40 miles from the officers who take the decisions? How on earth could something like that arise?

Mr. Scott

The remote filing system at Nelson serves not only DLA but a considerable number of other benefits and it seems sensible to keep those files at a central point. I acknowledge that there were delays, which caused considerable distress to a large number of customers during the early days of the benefit. I have apologised to the House for that, and I have acknowledged that the surge in claims at the launch of the benefit caused the problem. We are largely through that, and shall be able to meet targets from now on.

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