Select Committee on Liaison First Report

Committee Recommendations: Progress

Fourth Report: Social Security and Child Support Commissioners (HC 263) Published: 24 May 2000

Committee Recommendations: Progress
Sessions 1999-2000
Fourth Report: Social Security and Child Support Commissioners (HC 263)
Published: 24 May 2000

Government Reply: (HC 868) Published: 2 August 2000
RecommendationGovernment Response Committee Response/Follow upFurther Government Action Notes
We do not accept the DSS view on the appointment of additional Commissioners and recommend that the Lord Chancellor's Department immediately recruits the additional deputy Commissioner for which funding is available and considers what further appointments are necessary, to achieve real improvements in the service and to reduce the backlog as quickly as possible. If an increased Commissioners' establishment does result in an increased workload for the DSS a commensurate increase in DSS staff should be approved provided the increased workload is quantifiable and directly attributable to that reason. One new Commissioner has already been appointed and took up office in June. A further
Commissioner will be appointed in Scotland in July and a further appointment for London is
imminent. Deputies will continue to be used extensively to assist in reducing the backlogs, and
since February 2000 we have sat a total of 298 deputy days, disposing of 716 applications and

The DSS will monitor the impact on its workflows and OSSC and the Commissioners Appeals Unit are liasing to ensure that trends are picked up early and action taken to respond to fluctuations in intake.

OSSC and DSS now routinely provide each other with their statistical information. This has proved successful in identifying trends and providing 'early warning signs' and resulted in better forward planning and pro active approach. For example, an increase in the level of DLA appeals has been recognised and action has been taken to help to deal with this increase.
An issue for LCD
We recommend the re-introduction of the practice of legal officers being allocated to a particular case throughout its process. The current practice provides the necessary flexibility for the management of a large workload. Currently Legal Officers take charge throughout for the preparatory, advisory and interlocutory legal work in cases, which are difficult or demanding, and in most child support cases. Additionally where a legal officer raises a substantive point the case will go back to that legal officer. The practice for other cases is for work to be allocated to legal officers in turn. The committee's recommendation would result in a loss of flexibility and would impede our ability to speed up the end to end process and throughput in the more straightforward cases.

     An issue for LCD
We welcome the intention to increase the number of legal officers to 15 by the end of Financial Year 2002-03. There is a planned programme to increase the number of Legal Officers over the next three years. The recruitment of additional legal officers is at an advanced stage.
     An issue for LCD
We recommend that consideration should be given to the availability of legal aid in complex cases. The design of the welfare appeals system recognises that the majority of appellants do not have a detailed knowledge of the legislation. Proceedings before appeal tribunals and Commissioners are, therefore, inquisitorial in nature, rather than adversarial. Appeal tribunals and Commissioner do not rely solely on the evidence presented by the parties to the appeal, nor do they expect theappellant to point to the law in support of their appeal. Legally qualified panel members and Commissioners provide the necessary legal input.

DSS officers, including lawyers, who attend proceedings before tribunals and Commissioners, adopt a role of amicus curiae. They inform the tribunal or Commissioners of any evidence, which is relevant to a decision irrespective of, whether the evidence assists the appellant or the DSS. They do not assume a defensive role. A number of welfare organisations, such as the Citizen's Advice Bureaux, provide free advice and representation to appellants. These groups are supported by central funding.

It is within the Lord Chancellor's power to fund legal representation for an appellant through the legal aid scheme in England and Wales where he considers it appropriate to do so in exceptional cases.
     An issue for LCD
We believe that whilst some test cases might slip through the net, greater effort can and should be made to identify test cases at as early a stage as possible and we so recommend. A forum has been established to seek to identify particular trends and campaigns at an early stage so that test cases can be identified and determined quickly by the Appeal Service and, where appropriate, the Commissioner. The intention is that other dependent cases will be held at the lowest possible level pending final determination of the test cases. However most test cases proceed beyond the Commissioners to the superior courts and sometimes the ECJ and therefore can take some years to be resolved.
  To date one potential case has been identified.   
We believe all those concerned including the DSS, Lord Chancellor's Department, the Appeals Service and the Chief Commissioners Office could and should do better. We set out below our proposed timetable which once agreed should be made widely available to those intending to take their case to the Commissioners and to those who represent them. Decision­making and appeals (DMA) changes introduced last year were an important first step in addressing delays and improving levels of customer service. We believe the Committee's enquiry will add impetus to help us deliver the necessary improvements. Work is already in hand on performance targets, improved management information, publication of Commissioners' Decisions and a range of other changes. We are aiming to deliver a better­ and in time different service to all our customers. Since the Committee's recommendations, the time taken to deal with commissioner appeals has reduced from 55 weeks to 48 weeks. We are determined to reduce this further. W e are aiming for a target of 26 weeks (from receipt of the claimant's appeal by OSSCSC) by April 2002.
  Officials from LCD/OSSCSC/DSS/TAS have met to discuss improvements to the handling of appeals.
Improved processes have been agreed to enable appeals to be disposed of at the earliest opportunity. For example, some Commissioners when granting leave are indicating why - this allows for a focussed appeal covering all relevant points. Tribunal chairman are using Social Security Act 1998 section 13(2) which allows for a tribunal rehearing (where the original decision is clearly wrong in law) without the need for Commissioner involvement. Supported appeals are being prioritised so that incorrect decisions can be overturned quickly. The DSS are recruiting additional staff to the Leeds Unit to further improve clearance times.
We recognise the need to reduce the backlog of cases, as a matter of urgency, and believe these timescales can become realistic both as targets in helping to reduce the backlog, and as the norm, once reductions have occurred. As above        
Some cases will take a maximum of six months, but we hope that most cases would be completed from Tribunal decision to announcement of Commissioner's decision in five months. As above       
We recommend that extensions to time limits should be the exception rather than the rule, and should only be granted in exceptional circumstances.        An issue for LCD
We recommend that stringent and regularly published performance indicators are put in place as a matter of urgency. In particular, we believe that the DSS should be expected to return 95% of submissions to the Commissioners within the one month statutory limit and precise statistics of any extensions granted should be maintained. The other possible sanctions including the payment of benefit throughout the appeal stage and the use of interest should be options available to the Commissioners in the worst cases of non-compliance with time limits. The Committee will wish to see in the response a clear indication of whether it is intended to apply any of these sanctions and if not, why not. The Commissioners' procedure regulations provide a judicial discretion to extend time. There are cases where it is entirely appropriate to allow a party extra time to make observations.

We agree that extensions to time limits should be the exception rather than the rule and that extensions should only be granted in exceptional circumstances. Those circumstances should depend upon whether it is in the claimant's best interest to grant the extension.

The various Government departments and offices involved in the Commissioners appeals process, are in the process of drawing up a service level agreements. It is intended that the agreement will include performance indicators and be published. Each individual office is also reviewing processes to ensure that appeals are dealt with as efficiently as possible. Mechanisms are already in place to record and monitor precise statistics on requests for extensions.

The DSS wish to aim to clear 95% of submissions and directions within the statutory timescale and are looking urgently as to how to achieve this. It will involve a radical review of the whole process and both Departments are involved in the discussions.

The Committee asked the Government to consider the use of two other sanctions: The first was payment of interest. Claimants can already be paid interest where payment of benefit is not made because of maladministration, including delay. The second suggestion was payment of benefit throughout the appeal period. This would mean that payment would be made without legal entitlement having been established. The Government has an obligation to ensure that the correct amount of benefit is paid to the appropriate person at the right time.

  The DSS has received a 150% increase in the number of claimant appeals received this financial year to date, compared to last. Consequently it has not been possible to clear 95% within the one-month timescale or reduce the number of requests for extensions. It remains a priority to clear appeals urgently and keep the number of extension requests to a minimum. Significantly, the time taken from a request for an extension by the DSS to clearance to Commissioners is now on average 16 days.

As a result of the Committees recommendations an organisation and procedural review of the Leeds Unit has been completed. The recommended changes are to be introduced as soon as possible. We are confident these will deliver improvements in customer service and in particular reduced clearance times.
We trust that in the response to this report, we will receive assurances from the Lord Chancellor's Department and the DSS that the first supplement of Commissioners' decisions has been published and that arrangements are in place for quarterly supplements in the future. The DSS and the Lord Chancellor's Department are working together on the question of publishing Commissioners' decisions. The specialist publications team within the Commissioners Appeals Unit will publish those decisions identified by OSSCSC as appropriate for reporting and a timetable for publication has been agreed.

Arrangements are now in place for the Commissioners' reported decisions to be published in September 2000 in loose­leaf binder format. It will include the 53 decisions designated as suitable for reporting between January 1999 and July 2000. An agreed timetable is in place to ensure that future publications take place at quarterly intervals thereafter. We have also set up plans for the backlog of 130 reported decisions that were made prior to I 991). that are suitable for reporting, to he published at the very latest by March 2001.
  DSS published the first issue of 53 reported decisions (covering the 1999 year and those decisions so far reported in this year) on 29 September.

The DSS publications team in are continuing work on the 1991 - 98 years which will be issued in a series of 4 binders between now and March 2001.
We recommend that starred decisions should also be published in the series of quarterly supplements proposed. Arrangements are now in place for all future starred decisions to be available on the Court Service website at quarterly intervals. Those starred decisions that ultimately become reported decisions will be published in any event. OSSCSC will continue to provide hard copies of decisions to its subscribers and the public who wish to have them.

     An issue for LCD
We expect assurances that the Lord Chancellor's Department has taken steps to provide the resources necessary to ensure that the identification of decisions for publication and preparation of head notes is carried out by the Commissioners and legal officers to fit with the agreed publication cycle of decisions by the DSS publishers. Arrangements are in place to identify decisions for publication. Arrangements that fit in with the agreed DSS publication cycle are in place for the Commissioners and Legal Officers to prepare the headnotes.

     An issue for LCD
We recommend that the LCD and DSS together promote the new quarterly service of published Commissioners' decisions to all main public libraries and law libraries at a realistically affordable price. Commissioner's decisions are available at £1 by post and £2 by fax. The Publications team constantly reviews its publication costs to ensure competitive prices are obtained.

The new quarterly service will be promoted to all potential customers both by the printing contractors and by the DSS and details of the publication will be put on the Department's website. The decisions, when published, will be available on the DSS website in line with DSS policy and work is underway to ensure effective links are in place between the DSS website and the Court Service website to enable easy access.
     An issue for LCD
We recommend that the Court Service take steps to put starred and reported Commissioners' decisions dating back to at least 1990 on its website. Arrangements are in place to make all relevant starred decisions, made since 1990, available on the Court Service website and we are on target to achieve this by September 2000. Since February 2000, 160 starred decisions have been posted on the Court Service website. This covered all 1998 and 1999 starred decisions.

DSS are committed to have all the quarterly publication of reported decisions posted on their website. We feel that it would be better to include an index entry based on the key words used in the report and to include an appropriate hypertext link on the Court Service website to the relevant page on the DMA site. This will avoid confusion and save considerable time.


The first publication of the 53 reported decisions will be posted onto the DSS website by the end of October 2000.
An issue for LCD
We believe that the present relationship between the Commissioners and the DSS is too cozy and recommend a more even-handed method of prioritising cases based on claimant hardship and/or the potential importance of the case; that the Chief Commissioner should regularly meet with the major organisations which represent claimants before the Commissioners; and that he should consult more widely, including with claimant organisations, on the reporting of decisions. A degree of contact between the Chief Commissioner and the DSS is necessary to deal with
operational matters, particularly now, when the Decision Making and Appeals changes have an
impact on proceedings before the Commissioners. We will prioritise claimant's appeals on
grounds of hardship and/or the potential importance of the case. The Chief Commissioner held
an initial meeting with representatives from Child Poverty Action Group and National
Association of Citizen's Advice Bureaus on 11 July. These representatives also met the
management team at OSSCSC on the same day. Other meetings will be arranged with Welfare
Rights organisations and DSS representatives will be invited to attend.
       An issue for LCD
In the cause of more openness, the minutes of the meetings with the Department should be available to interested parties. We accept that there is a need for minutes of meetings attended by the Chief Commissioner, to be made available to interested parties. These will be available as appropriate.

       An issue for LCD
We recommend that the length of time at each stage from the dates with reasons and leave to appeal are sought to the date the notification of determination by the Commissioners is given to the claimant should be recorded and monitored. We will be watching the trends and will expect the Departments to keep comprehensive statistics so that full answers can be given to our enquiries or to Parliamentary Questions. OSSCSC plan to have new management information systems in place from October 2000, to 1 produce better management and statistical information to monitor and record the length of time at each stage. We have already taken steps to collate the additional statistics and information recommended by the Committee, this includes performance data for all stages of the appeal process, receipt of tribunal papers from Appeals Service regional offices, number of extensions received and granted success rates and representation at oral hearings.

     An issue for LCD
We believe that the proposals we make above should be implemented without delay so that their effect combined with that of the Social Security Act 1998 can be looked at together. We therefore suggest that a thorough review as suggested by the Chief Commissioner should be undertaken in a year's time. That review should include an examination of the merits of giving the Commissioners "Woolf-style" case management powers, favoured in oral evidence by the Chief Commissioner and should take an "end to end" approach to the whole appeals process, not just the Commissioners' responsibilities. We propose to conduct a review, and will consider its scope and timing.
     An issue for LCD

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