HC Deb 17 May 2000 vol 350 cc90-6WH 12.30 pm
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)

It usually gives me the greatest pleasure to initiate debates on issues that are within the Government's competence, but, sadly, that is not so in this case. This debate is based on my concerns about various shocking cases of which I am sure that the Minister is already aware. I would perhaps not be so concerned if the issue arose in only an isolated case, but, on the basis of my information, it seems to be arising across the country. I feel—as I am sure that other hon. Members do—that my constituents have a right to consistently high service standards, but, in disability living allowance, they are not receiving them.

I should like to raise three issues, the first of which is the problem of inordinate delay in DLA administration. The second is the difficulty in obtaining, quickly, accurate information. The third is the difficulty in finding anyone within the Department of Social Security with any knowledge of anything within its remit on the details of a particular case.

Delay is perhaps the most important issue. I am told that, when a person applies for DLA, it takes 11 weeks for a decision to be made. That situation is most unsatisfactory, and I should be interested to hear from the Minister just how he intends to improve it. About 87 per cent. of cases are dealt with within 53 working days. Although those cases satisfy the Department's own targets, I think that it is a very poor performance, and that the targets are not sufficiently strong. I suggest that the Minister has to resolve that obvious disparity. Furthermore, the situation is not improving, but—although the Department's own business plans make no mention of it—deteriorating.

Some cases that I have had are taking years to resolve. I shall give just three examples. In August 1998, Mrs. Fulton, a constituent of mine, tried to renew her DLA. In March 1999, she got in touch with my office, as the DLA unit was showing persistent incompetence. Such was the incompetence that the unit offered £200 as an ex gratia payment. The unit lost files. It was inaccurate, even sending out an inaccurate reply from its chief executive. Although the case began in August 1998, it went to appeal only last month. However, because of further incompetence, Mrs. Fulton will have to go to the commissioner to resolve the situation. Absolutely no solution to the case is yet in sight.

The Minister will also know about the second case, concerning another of my constituents—who does not want his name to be mentioned in this debate. His DLA was stopped in February 1998. The tribunal was in October 1998. However, because of the Benefits Agency's incompetence, the appeal could not be heard. I understand that, as the Benefits Agency had not reviewed its original decision, an appeal is now not legally possible.

The individual contacted me in August 1999. He said that there was to be a second appeal tribunal—which, eventually, occurred in February 2000, after further massive incompetence within the Department. However, a review of the case is still not possible. In a recent letter from the chief executive, the information on the case was three weeks out of date. Now that we have brought attention to the case, we have finally been promised that there will be a review.

The third case is that of another of my constituents, Mr. Stewart, who first contacted my office in May 1999. He had two claims, the first of which—dating back to 1995, when the original claim was made—was with the ombudsman. The second claim was for renewal of benefit. The latter claim has, so far, taken 19 months, but it has still not been decided by a commissioner. There is absolutely no indication when a decision on it will be made.

Mr. Stewart's initial claim to the assessors was made in March 1997. I am sure that the Minister has a copy of the assessors' damning report on the handling of the case, and that he will mention it in his reply. However, even in that case, no date for a tribunal has been set.

How have such delays been created, and how can they be stopped? Time limits on resolving cases must be established, and there must be some way of enforcing them. Perhaps automatic compensation should be made to constituents with cases such as those that I have mentioned.

Accurate information is another problem, as it is almost impossible to obtain such information from the Department. Locally, I have no problems with the Benefits Agency. I have the manager's telephone number, I lift a telephone and contact him or one of his officers, and I receive a response almost automatically—in most cases within a day; certainly within a fortnight. The local situation with the Benefits Agency differs extremely from the national one, particularly on DLA. Replies take at least a month. Frequently—as I have outlined in the above cases—they are inaccurate.

I realise that the national organisation is larger, but I reject completely that it should be so inaccurate in its replies. I should also expect, as a member of Parliament, to receive much quicker responses. The worst element of the situation is that at no stage does any checking seem to be done within the chief executive's office itself. Letters seem to be written by someone outside the agency, without being checked for accuracy by the chief executive himself or by anyone in his office.

No one within the chief executive's office or the agency itself seems to know what is going on. Frequently, when a constituent's case has to be dealt with by action beyond a usual decision, review or appeal, my office has to contact someone within the agency who—I should like to think—has some understanding of that case. My experience is that, in such cases, one is passed from pillar to post. One telephones the Benefits Agency, but is then knocked about from one person to the next. One tries to resolve the problem, and one thinks that one has done so. Then, nothing happens. One again contacts the agency, but then has to deal with another person. It can go on for month after month without a resolution.

I ask the Minister to consider for a moment the possibility of establishing at the agency a "Member of Parliament's hotline", such as that operating at the Child Support Agency. It would at least ensure that we know that the individual whom we talk to will go and do something on the case. A similar set-up at the DLA unit is long overdue.

Currently, it is impossible in any circumstances quickly to resolve even obvious problems. It is certainly impossible to resolve problems with a telephone call. When one tries to do so, one encounters complete bureaucracy. Finally, one has to write to the chief executive, who—right across the board—knows nothing about the case and shows no understanding or competence in his replies. I believe, based on both the evidence that I have gathered and anecdotal evidence, that my constituents are not receiving the service to which they are entitled.

I encourage welfare groups in my area. My constituency is not one of the leafy suburbs, but an area of high unemployment and high dependency on entitlements from the state. Those people tell the same story of delays and inaccurate information. It is bad enough that the Benefits Agency fails to reply to letters, but I am told that Ministers never reply either. That is worrying.

I am concerned that the Benefits Agency seems to think that everything is fine. Its annual reports do not mention the problems. I trust that, on the basis of what I have said and what he must know from other hon. Members, my hon. Friend the Minister will try to do something to change the situation.

Some parts of the Benefits Agency give people a reasonable service. I do not have a problem locally. However, I hope that my hon. Friend can ensure that the obvious problem in the disability living allowance unit will be resolved. I hope that he can assure me and, more importantly, my constituents, that changes will be made.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) on securing this debate. He has raised some important deficiencies in the administration of that important benefit, which the Government take seriously.

Disability living allowance and its sister benefit, attendance allowance, which is payable to people who make claims after the age of 65, make a very important contribution to the welfare of the 3.3 million people who currently receive them. The Government have a responsibility to administer the benefits fairly and efficiently. I agree with my hon. Friend that members of the public have a right to a consistently high standard of service from the Benefits Agency and the DLA unit. In most cases, they get it, but in some cases they do not. My hon. Friend has highlighted three particularly worrying cases. We must address the problems that have led to those cases not being properly managed.

I shall respond to my hon. Friend's three cases in as much detail as I can. I am grateful to him for giving me advance notice of them so that I can look into the background. Despite the problems, it would be a mistake to believe that they are typical of the service that the Benefits Agency provides. We receive and process 70,000 new claims for DLA and attendance allowance every month, as well as 12,000 renewals and 5,000 appeals. Usually, we avoid making serious errors. However, the fact that we normally get it right is no excuse for getting it wrong on occasions. I hope to have a little time to talk about the Department's policies to improve the quality of administration of DLA.

I agree with my hon. Friend on the important role of welfare groups in providing advice and assistance to people claiming those benefits. I have recently been convening meetings with the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux throughout the countries of the United Kingdom, including a recent meeting in Edinburgh for welfare rights advisers in Scotland to discuss medical services reports, which are a vital component of the benefit. My officials and I have had a lot of good feedback and some good ideas from those meetings. As a result of ideas put forward at the meetings, we have recently started to ensure that SEMA, the contractor of medical services, regularly meets the head of the independent tribunal service, Judge Harris, to get feedback on the outcome of appeals. The Department's chief medical adviser was already doing that, but the contractor was not. The two now meet the tribunal service regularly to get feedback. It is important for us to listen to those who are working in the field with people claiming the benefits.

My hon. Friend raised several issues relating to the general delay in processing the benefits. He was concerned that 11 weeks was a long time to process a new claim to benefit. Because of the nature of the benefit, we have set a 53-day target. Whereas entitlement to most benefits depends on facts—such as whether a person has savings, whether they work or whether their husband has recently died—entitlement to disability living allowance depends on opinions about issues such as whether a person needs care throughout the day and the night. Decision-makers often need to seek medical evidence from GPs or other medical professionals to build up a complete picture of the care and mobility needs arising from the person's disability. Writing reports for the Benefits Agency is not a high priority for most doctors. I know from individual cases that hon. Members have written to me about that it can often take two or three reminder letters and several weeks to get the necessary medical report for making a correct determination of entitlement to benefit. Would that it were easier and quicker, but it is because of the nature of the benefit that the target time is so long.

We have special rules that ensure that claims from people with progressive diseases and those who are terminally ill are dealt with quickly. The Benefits Agency is currently clearing 86 per cent. of such cases within 10 days.

I accept that the Benefits Agency's performance against the target of processing 85 per cent. of new claims within 53 days has been worsening. Last year, we did not meet the target for mainstream DLA claims, excluding the special rules cases, although we did meet it for attendance allowance. I shall deal later with how we intend to improve the administration of the benefit.

I shall refer to the constituent, whose name my hon. Friend did not give, as Mr. X. His entitlement to benefit was suspended when he was imprisoned in December 1995. On his release in December 1997, he asked the Benefits Agency to reinstate his disability living allowance, which it did from the day of his release, on 10 December 1997. In February 1998, the Benefits Agency sought additional evidence from Mr. X's GP to confirm that his medical condition and the mobility and care needs arising from it had not changed. As a result of the GP's evidence, the adjudication officer decided that Mr. X no longer qualified for the care component of disability living allowance, with effect from 4 February 1998.

Since July 1996, BA staff have been required to seek additional evidence in all cases involving claims for the highest rates of both components of DLA, which included the case that my hon. Friend raised. In retrospect, I agree that it would have been sensible for the additional evidence to be sought before the benefit was reinstated in December 1997, although there was no legal requirement for that.

Mr. X appealed against the decision to change his benefit entitlement, but, as my hon. Friend has said, the appeals service referred the case back to the Benefits Agency, because it did not consider that the decision-maker had conducted a mandatory review of the decision to change an award of benefit.

Under the old rules for DLA appeals, there had to be a review process before an appeal could be heard. The Benefits Agency, on the other hand, felt that it had followed the law correctly in both its review decisions to reinstate the benefit on Mr. X's release from prison and to reduce his benefit following the receipt of new medical evidence.

I strongly regret that the difference of opinion between the Benefits Agency and the tribunal service led to an impasse that lasted two years. The BA believed that it would be unlawful to review Mr. X's benefit for a third time and the tribunal service judged that it would be unlawful for it to hear an appeal which, it felt, had not been previously subjected to a second-tier review.

Under the old legislation, the impasse was insoluble, however, the Government have introduced new decision making and appeals legislation which gives us the opportunity to do something that could not have been done in the past—to implement a further review. The DMA legislation in relation to disability living allowance was introduced in October 1999 and amended the legislative framework by introducing a far simpler and more flexible system. As a result, the case is now being reconsidered by a Benefits Agency decision maker and Mr. X was sent a decision yesterday. Normal appeal rights will, of course, apply to that decision. So the works are ungummed, but I regret that the system led to an impasse that lasted two years.

Although it acted within the law, the way in which the case was handled by the Benefits Agency has caused considerable delay for Mr. X, and, through his Member of Parliament, I offer my sincere apologies.

I now turn to the case of Mrs. Fulton. I am informed that, on 16 June 1999, Mrs. Fulton appealed against the decision not to extend the care component of her DLA beyond 30 January 1999. On 16 August 1999, the disability benefits unit sent all relevant documents to the appeals service. The appeal was arranged for 20 December 1999, but the hearing was adjourned as the tribunal did not have all the necessary documents. I have been unable to establish whether all of these documents were sent by the Benefits Agency, whether they were received by the appeals service or whether they were lost in transit. However, I accept that the lack of certain documents should have been spotted by the appeals service before the hearing. I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend that the appeals service has now introduced procedures and training for all clerks to appeals tribunals to ensure that cases are checked for completeness before a date is set for a hearing. Once again, I accept that there was a problem and we have taken action to seek to ensure that it should never happen again.

On 22 February 2000, the tribunal reconvened, but again adjourned. At the hearing, it requested a doctor's report to provide additional information about Mrs. Fulton's mobility and care needs. The tribunal has the authority to consider Mrs. Fulton's entitlement to both components of DLA if it considers that there are good reasons for doing so. Obviously, if it identifies certain questions that it needs to determine properly to deal with the case, it needs to obtain the necessary evidence. That is a matter for the tribunal service, which is entirely independent of the DSS and not accountable to Ministers.

I am sorry for the inconvenience that any mishandling has caused Mrs. Fulton. As my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech, two ex gratia payments of £100 each were made to Mrs. Fulton for this inconvenience, the first in August 1999 and another in April 2000.

The case of Mr. Stewart, the third constituent to whom my hon. Friend referred, is a long and complex one and I am afraid that I can say less in response to the points that he raised. As the case is currently the subject of an investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, it would not be appropriate to comment on the service that Mr. Stewart has received from the various welfare agencies.

I understand that Mr. Stewart's appeal against the decision of the appeals tribunal to award him the lower-rate care component for a fixed period is currently being considered by a social security commissioner and questions concerning the handling of the case should be directed to the Lord Chancellor. Like tribunals, social security commissioners are not accountable to the DSS. However, my hon. Friend asked what might be done to allow people who take their case beyond the appeal stage to the social security commissioners and to check on its progress. I can confirm that people in that situation would need to contact the appeals service and ask for a form called OSSC1, on which to register their appeal to the commissioners. On that form are the contact details for the office of the social security commissioners.

My hon. Friend made an interesting proposal that Members of Parliament should have a helpline or a complaints line in relation to DLA and attendance allowance similar to that for the Child Support Agency. If I recall rightly, under the previous Government when there were difficulties following the introduction of DLA, there was such a helpline. I shall certainly look at what happened then and consider whether it would be appropriate to reintroduce it.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the independent assessors report. Although he gave me advance warning, I have not yet seen the report, so I shall respond in writing to the issues that he raised.

The level of service provided by the Benefits Agency and the appeals service is undoubtedly unacceptable in these cases. I apologise directly and unreservedly to my hon. Friend's constituents. I cannot undo the problems that they have encountered, but I can tell my hon. Friend what we are doing to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.

The length of time that it takes for DLA and attendance allowance claims to be processed has increased and the Benefits Agency is taking steps to address the issue urgently. I am taking a close interest in that work. We are moving part of the work load from areas where the backlog is greatest to areas with less backlog and streamlining the processes to remove bottlenecks. We are simplifying some of the forms and letters to customers, recruiting and training additional staff and making maximum use of overtime within the strictures of the working time directive. That will have an effect, but it takes about six months to train a decision maker on DLA and attendance allowance as they are the most complicated benefits. So I am afraid that it will be some months before we reduce the times to acceptable levels.

We have introduced a programme of work within the Benefits Agency specifically designed to improve the way in which DLA is administered. This programme—the disability benefits modernisation programme—has introduced a new system for reviewing awards—called periodic inquiry—to ensure that customers receive their full entitlement to benefit. In the majority of awards that change it means an increase in benefit, although it can lead to a reduction in benefit in some cases. In addition, we are testing more personalised ways of dealing with new claims to benefit. Elderly people in particular find the application form daunting. It is a 40-page form which asks a lot of searching questions which are necessary in relation to securing entitlement to benefit. Indeed, it was designed as a self-assessment benefit in which claimants, who know best the effect of their disability or illness on their daily lives, to make an assessment of their needs. Therefore, claimants have to provide a great deal of information. We are testing the effectiveness of taking claims verbally, with somebody going out to meet claimants.

Hon. Members may also be aware that we are currently committed to introducing a fairer system of determining entitlement to disability benefits—called activities for managing life. It involves a set of proposed new tests that have been developed by and with voluntary bodies representing disabled people. If such a system came into use, it would be a significant change which the House would not expect us to introduce without careful consideration, consultation and testing, although I hope that we will be able to test the ideas produced by the working group some time next year.

The launch of the appeals service has reduced the number of outstanding appeals—

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

Order. We must now move on to the next debate