HC Deb 15 February 1999 vol 325 cc553-4W
Dr. David Clark

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security (1) if the piloted changes to the composition of appeal tribunals for incapacity benefit are to be introduced nationally; [70558]

(2) what is the current average time before appeals are heard by appeal tribunals in relation to incapacity benefit. [70559]

Angela Eagle

The current average delay in hearing all appeals, including those on Incapacity Benefit, is seven months. This is clearly unacceptable and we are committed to improvements. Changes will be introduced in the second half of this year, under the provisions of the Social Security Act 1998.

One change will be to move away from the rigid requirement of a three person tribunal in every case to a more flexible approach, where the tribunal will be made up of people with the expertise to consider the issues in each appeal. Appeals on Incapacity Benefit will be heard by a lawyer and a doctor.

We will be bringing the necessary regulations to the House shortly.

During the passage of the Social Security Bill through the Lords, we introduced an amendment at the request of the President of the Independent Tribunal Service, His Honour Judge Michael Harris, to allow the early introduction of flexible tribunal composition in Social Security appeal tribunals. Judge Harris has used this power to allow appeals on Incapacity Benefit to be heard by a lawyer, assisted by a doctor. This has allowed him to test out the arrangements for more flexible tribunal composition.

Early indications are that the new flexibility appears to be working well. Tribunal chairmen operating the new arrangements are reporting overall improvements in service as a result of the change. There is no evidence to suggest that the percentage of appeals upheld has been affected by the introduction of the new arrangements.