§ 5. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)
What steps he is taking to improve the social security appeal procedure. 
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle)
We have introduced a new system to streamline and modernise appeals that has already led to a faster and more efficient service. The appeals service has already made significant improvements to clear backlogs and reduce waiting times. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set challenging targets to improve the service still further.
§ Mr. Borrow
I welcome my hon. Friend's statement, but I draw to her attention the fact that constituents of mine, and—I am sure—of other hon. Members, 9 find access to the tribunal system difficult, either because of physical disabilities, although many tribunal rooms have disabled access, or because of the stress of making a case in person in a benefit appeal. Some people are reluctant to go through that stress, and I ask my hon. Friend to ask her officials to consider steps to assist both those groups of potential beneficiaries.
§ Angela Eagle
I am happy to do so. My hon. Friend will be aware that in exceptional circumstances domiciliary visits can be made if an individual would find it difficult to get to the place where the tribunal normally meets. Hearings have been held in people's front rooms, for example. I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome the recent figures which demonstrated that the 70,000 backlog of 18-month-old cases, with which the new Appeals Service started, is now down to only 3,500 cases. The process used to take seven months, on average, to clear an appeal, but it now takes only 14 weeks. That is a significant improvement, and much congratulation is due to those who work in the Appeals Service.
§ Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)
Does the Minister think that the new appeals system deals with the charge made by the Select Committee on Social Security only last month about the disturbing culture of delays in the social security appeal system? Will she recognise that delays are caused in the early stages of appeals by the appeal system, and that is the direct responsibility of the Department? Will she accept that criticism?
§ Angela Eagle
We knew when we came into government, when it took seven months on average to hear any appeal, that we had inherited a system that was silting up and was not working. The changes in the Social Security Act 1998, which streamlined the system, were designed to deal with some of those difficulties. The results so far show, as I have just announced, that the backlog has plummeted from 70,000 to 3,500 and the average seven-month waiting time is now down to an average of 14 weeks. Significant improvements have been made, but we are never complacent and will continue to do what we can to improve the accessibility of the system and its effectiveness.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent record in reducing the backlog in the appeals system. May I urge her to consider the number of applications for incapacity benefit that go to appeal and how many should have been successful before reaching that stage? The present procedure is causing pain and anguish to many people, who find it extremely difficult.
§ Angela Eagle
Disability benefits are among the most difficult to administer and to apply for, because they are discretionary and based on individual circumstances. We keep a watchful eye on what we might do to improve them, but they are complex benefits to administer. However, I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes.