HC Deb 25 October 1999 vol 336 cc686-7
2. Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth)

What steps his Department is taking to improve social security appeals procedures. [93745]

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

As part of our plans for modernising the social security system, we are bringing in important changes to procedures for making decisions on social security claims and child support assessments and for handling appeals. The changes will be completed by November this year.

Mr. Wright

I thank my hon. Friend for her response. I welcome the setting up of a new appeals procedure, which we hope will prevent unacceptably long delays in making decisions. One of my constituents, who suffered from myalgic encephalomyelitis, had to endure 18 months before his appeal was won. Can my hon. Friend give us an assurance that all the old appeals will be tackled in the near future?

Angela Eagle

I understand my hon. Friend's frustration with the system that we inherited, where the average wait for an appeal decision was seven months. Clearly, if the average waiting time is seven months, some cases will go on for much longer. The backlog of old appeals, which in February stood at 70,348 cases, which was 50 per cent. of all outstanding appeals, was down to 15,405 in September, as a result of the changes that we have made in decision making and appeals. That is a substantial improvement, and I take this opportunity of complimenting the staff of the tribunal service, who have done so well to produce that result.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Does the Minister accept that the appeals procedure was reviewed only because of pressure exerted by the Opposition? Will the hon. Lady, on behalf of the Government, undertake to go back on the means-testing provision that is written into the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, to avoid a burdensome appeals procedure when that comes into force?

Angela Eagle

I have never heard such nonsense in my life; I am afraid that the hon. Lady is living in fantasy land. It is quite clear that streamlining, which maintains people's proper rights, had to be introduced for the cumbersome appeals procedure that we inherited, and that is what we have done.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Although everyone welcomes the clear acceleration in the hearing of such appeals, will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that there is some doubt about the quality of some of the evidence that is being given to tribunals? Many of the most vulnerable people in our society are losing their benefits and having to appeal. The length of time in which an appeal is heard is essential. I know that she understands that, but will she keep a close eye on the situation?

Angela Eagle

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend and also, I hope, can reassure her that one of the main principles behind the changes to appeals procedures is avoiding the need for appeals altogether. In other words, we want to collect the evidence properly and ensure that benefit is awarded correctly first time so that we can take a lot of appeals, which are caused by mistakes and confusion, out of the system completely.

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