HC Deb 05 July 1999 vol 334 cc629-30
8. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

What steps his Department is taking to improve social security appeals procedures. [88032]

11. Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham)

What steps he is taking to shorten the waiting times for appeals for incapacity benefit and disability living allowance claimants who have had their benefits stopped. [88036]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle)

As we announced on 23 June, we are improving procedures for making decisions and handling appeals. These changes will help our clients, including those whose incapacity benefit or disability living allowance has been stopped. The Independent Tribunal Service has already taken action to shorten the waiting times for appeals, and is now making significant inroads into its backlog of cases.

Helen Jones

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply.

Although I have raised the matter in the House before, many constituents are still contacting me, almost in despair over the time that they are having to wait for their appeals to be heard. Does my hon. Friend not agree that that is an unacceptable burden to impose on people who are already in a very vulnerable position? Can she assure us that she will continue to monitor the situation, to ensure that the mechanism we introduced to improve appeals tribunals is delivered and that people are given decisions as speedily as possible?

Angela Eagle

My hon. Friend makes a case for speeding up reform that cannot be questioned. I could point out that, again, the problem is due to the legacy of the Conservative party. There are backlogs of seven months. That is why we changed the system in the Social Security Act 1998, as a result of which new decision-making and appeals procedures are now being introduced. The chief executive of the new Appeals Agency has been set tough targets.

In February there was a backlog of 70,000 cases, or 50 per cent. of the case load. By the end of May, that backlog had been reduced to 34,000, or 30 per cent. of the case load. As I have said, significant inroads are being made, but we are not complacent about the task that faces us.

Mr. Efford

I, too, thank my hon. Friend for her answer; but does she share my concern about the number of claimants whose benefits are being stopped as a result of inadequate information given to adjudicators by medical examiners, and about the impact that that is having on the backlog? What steps can she take to improve and monitor the actions of medical examiners, to ensure that they perform better in the future?

Angela Eagle

There are many reasons why tribunal cases may be adjourned, or tribunals may not be able to reach a decision. We are trying to deal with all those reasons. Sometimes bad administration is to blame, but, by means of the new decision-making and appeals processes, we are monitoring the standard of work closely. Reports will be made to Ministers on how that is going. I hope that a significant improvement can be made in all these areas, but especially in administration.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Does the Minister accept that people with disabilities are especially vulnerable in respect of appeals, and delays in the proper payment of benefit? Those people are extremely worried. Although the Minister has given figures in an attempt to claim that there has been some improvement, that is not the way in which many of my constituents see the position.

Does the Minister also accept that, even if the appeals situation improves—as we all hope that it will—a further round of difficulties will arise from Government proposals to means-test incapacity benefit? Those proposals are likely to add further to the complexity of the system and to the number of appeals and difficulties, and to lead to a general lack of fairness in the treatment of people with disabilities.

Angela Eagle

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench—I do not think that I have had the pleasure of doing so before—but I cannot agree with what he has said.

It is important to remember that, through the changes to decision-making and appeals, we have made it easier for errors to be sorted out without the need for an appeal. We hope that that will lead to the speedy resolution of many more cases, thus clearing the way for experts to examine genuine cases that require decisions. I am convinced that we shall have a much better, more sensitive way of disposing of a number of cases—to the mutual satisfaction of appellants and those who consider their appeals—right at the beginning, before cases even come to appeal.