HC Deb 15 May 2000 vol 350 cc17-8
10. Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

What plans he has to shorten the appeal process for disability-related benefits. [120946]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley)

We have introduced a new system to streamline and modernise the appeals system for all benefits. For disability living allowance and attendance allowance, the right of appeal can now be exercised at an earlier stage. The appeals service has already made significant improvements to clear backlogs and reduce waiting times. We are seeking to improve the service still further.

Ms Morgan

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, and I welcome his remarks. However, does he agree that waiting for appeals is stressful for constituents, particularly for those with mental health problems? Will he look into the case of my constituent, Mrs. Jenkins, whose disability living allowance was withdrawn in April 1999? She is still waiting for a tribunal, which is due to be heard in June 2000. This is causing her acute distress and mental anguish, and is confining her to her home.

Mr. Bayley

I can reassure my hon. Friend that I will certainly look at Mrs. Jenkins's case.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that, in her local appeals service office in Cardiff, some 21,500 cases were waiting to be heard one year ago, in February 1999, and more than half of that number—some 11,300 cases—waited for longer than six months. Today the figures have dropped, so that only 9,588 cases are outstanding, and only 2,161 are more than six months old. So we are making progress.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Does the hon. Gentleman have any plans to allow Motability cars to be retained during the DLA appeals process until it has been completed? Is he aware that a constituent of mine has been forced to hand back the car and make alterations to it, returning it to its original state and removing special hand controls? Would it not be better to have a system whereby the car was retained until the appeals process was completed? Is the hon. Gentleman further aware that the problem is something to do with the Customs and Excise arrangements on value added tax? Will he please undertake to look into the matter and write to me about it?

Mr. Bayley

I am aware of the case. The hon. Gentleman has written to me about it and I have replied— it may have been one of the letters that I signed at the weekend. The Government have an interest in Motability, in that we pay the higher rate mobility component of DLA that pays for Motability cars. However, Motability is an independent charity and is responsible for its own rules. As the hon. Gentleman recognises, it is not possible for people who are not in receipt of DLA to retain their cars because the scheme receives considerable VAT concessions from the Chancellor and other Government concessions and support. That support can be given only because it goes to people who are in receipt of a benefit. Those who re not in receipt of a benefit unfortunately cannot retain their cars.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Will the Minister accept that, while any improvement in acceleration in the appeals process is welcome, as long as it is consistent with justice, most claimants are looking not so much for the appeals process as the substance of their claim? Will he also accept from the case of Colin Hughes, and many like him, that there is very little link, if any, between the extra costs of disability and the means of the disabled person? In the light of that, would it not have been better if, instead of their Scrooge-like imposition of means-testing on incapacity benefit, the Government had introduced a more effective medical test for new claimants?

Mr. Bayley

I am slightly reluctant to discuss an individual case on the Floor of the House. However, the hon. Gentleman has referred to it on two occasions, and I think that I can refer to some details that the claimant, Colin Hughes, has made public.

I admire Colin Hughes greatly. He is a severely disabled man who has made a successful career within the BBC. The difficulty that he faces with his benefit is that the independent living fund administrators were not aware of his salary at the BBC. Had they been aware of his salary, he would have received no support at all under the old means-testing rules, introduced by the hon. Gentleman's party when it introduced the independent living fund. As a result of the changes that our party has made to relax the means test to provide a greater return from employment for the relatively few people who are supported by the independent living fund and who can work, Colin Hughes would be able to keep a greater proportion of his earnings—which is a good thing—if the question of his savings were resolved. I have discussed with those who manage the independent living funds ways in which the savings that anybody else with perhaps a longer life expectancy might have put into a pension scheme can be put into some form of trust fund so that they can be disregarded in whole or in part.