HC Deb 27 April 1998 vol 311 cc11-2
8. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

What plans she has to reform the system of social security tribunals. [38486]

The Minister for Welfare Reform (Mr. Frank Field)

Our plans are detailed in the Social Security Bill.

Helen Jones

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the present system imposes totally unacceptable delays on people? I shall give two examples from my constituency. One constituent lodged an appeal on 20 January and is still waiting to hear something. In an even worse case, an appeal was lodged on 8 July last year and was not even acknowledged as accepted by the Independent Tribunal Service until 8 January this year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in those cases, justice delayed is justice denied? As well as considering reform for the future, will he urge the ITS to do something to clear that backlog of cases, which is imposing a terrible burden on some of the poorest people?

Mr. Field

The answer to the first question is yes, as is the answer to the second question. Our proposals in the Social Security Bill are aimed at drastically speeding up the length of time that people have to wait between lodging an appeal and its being heard.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Does the Minister recall a case which I discussed with him and about which I wrote to the Secretary of State—that of a constituent who, sadly, died earlier this month having been waiting 18 months for an appeal to be heard about a disability benefit for a disability from which he died? Is it not an absolute disgrace that the resources that should have been available to that person while he was alive were denied? What will the right hon. Gentleman do urgently to get that sorted out?

Mr. Field

The right hon. Gentleman makes the case for reform more effectively than I could.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

Has the right hon. Gentleman had an opportunity in the past few months to read the Hansard Standing Committee reports on the Social Security Bill from last autumn? What change between then and now has led his Department in another place to accept amendments tabled by the Conservative Opposition in Committee, which the Government refused to accept then, concerning having someone with legal representation as a member of a tribunal? In the spirit of constructive opposition and government, are the Government now also prepared to accept the important principle which we put forward in amendments—that we should not have one-member tribunals, in the interests of natural justice?

Mr. Field

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for illustrating to the House what a listening Government we have. I should have thought that he would congratulate the Government, rather than trying to carp.

Mr. Burns

What has changed?

Mr. Field

I will give the answer for a second time: this is a listening Government.