Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the President and the Chief Executive of the Appeals Service (SSA1)

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1  The Committee conducted its last enquiry into appeals handling in June 1999, reporting in October of that year. At that time, the responsibility for the administration of appeals had just passed from the President of the Independent Tribunal Service to the Secretary of State and the focus of the organisation was on two things: the clearance of a substantial backlog of appeals; and the implementation of the decision-making and appeals changes legislated for in the Social Security Act 1998.

  1.2  Almost two years on, with the Act implemented and the first full year of the new Appeals Service in operation completed, our performance has improved significantly and we have begun to concentrate on more ambitious improvement activities to raise standards and reduce variations across the judicial organisation and agency alike.

  1.3  The Committee may have been able to follow some of this progress through the Government's response to its Eighth Report on the Modernisation of Social Security Appeals; our Annual Report covering 1999-2000, our year of transition; and the Government's progress report against its response to the last Report received by the Committee in October 2000.

  1.4  We very much hope that the Committee will also have been interested in key documents outlining our—developing—vision for the future of our Service—in particular and most recently our submission to Sir Andrew Leggatt and his review team, made last September, and our Business Plan for 2001-02, just published.

  1.5  In the time available, we have not sought to draw together a memorandum for the Committee reproducing our progress and our vision and ambitions contained in these documents. However, we did want to assist the Committee by setting out some key points about the development of our organisation since the last enquiry—including areas in which the Committee showed particular interest—and about our priorities and plans for the future.

  1.6  This note is submitted jointly by the President and Chief Executive of the Appeals Service.

2.  PERFORMANCE

Performance gains since 1999

  2.1  The Committee will recall that, during their last enquiry, we had embarked on a specific strategy to address the considerable backlog of older cases which had accrued during previous years. This twin strategy involved making determined efforts to deal with those cases which remained outstanding for longer than six months, as well as maintaining a focus on efficient throughput of newer cases.

  2.2  This strategy has brought us considerable success. In March 1999, over 70,000 appeals (more than half our caseload) had been outstanding for six months or more and in many cases for well over a year. By April 2000, those same cases had fallen to less than 4,000 and now to just 728—and the vast majority of those are cases awaiting decisions in lead cases at higher courts. In addition, waiting times[1] for newer cases have shown improvement, with the average time taken to get a case to first hearing falling from 15.7 weeks in October 1999 to 14.7 weeks by the end of March 2000 and now to 13.6 weeks at the end of March 2001. In all, some 74,603 appeals remain outstanding, half the number in March 1999.

  2.3  In consolidating these performance gains and, in particular through carefully applying our "First In, First Out" policy for dealing with cases, ensuring equitable and impartial treatment for all, we have considerably reduced both the time appellants have to wait for a tribunal hearing, and the age profile of our outstanding caseload.

  2.4  Annex A shows our performance against Secretary of State targets for 2000-01; and the current age profile of our caseload, shown in graphic form alongside the comparable profile shown to the Committee in June 1999.

  2.5  Although we were disappointed to miss our Secretary of State targets for the proportion of cases older than 26 weeks[2] and the reduction in avoidable adjournments,[3] we were pleased to hit our key performance target—an average 14 week waiting time to first hearing. And the change in the age profile of outstanding appeals since the Committee's last enquiry is particularly encouraging.

Effective Tribunals

  2.6  While we are having significant success in getting cases promptly to first hearing, it is still the case that a significant proportion of cases are still having to be adjourned, with the consequent inconvenience of further delay for all parties. Of course, the majority of adjournments are unavoidable and entirely appropriate—the priority in all cases is to ensure that a just and correct decision is reached at the tribunal. However, we believe more can still be done to anticipate possible difficulties arising at the hearing and avoid adjournments. The premium is on making each and every tribunal hearing an effective one.

  2.7  To this end, during 2000-01 we undertook a programme of work designed to make tribunal hearings more effective at the first time of hearing. This programme included:

    —  analysis and development of the role of the tribunal clerk (including consultation with the Council on Tribunals), backed up by a revamped basic training package;

    —  provision of original files to tribunal venues to ensure that panel members have all the information they need on the history of each case;

    —  improved procedures for arranging the attendance of professional interpreters or signers;

    —  the introduction of medical assistants in cases where a medical examination takes place; and

    —  measures to improve standards of judicial decision making (see paragraphs 3.1 to 3.6).

  2.8  This programme also included some specific service improvements for customers, namely:

    —  a £1.2 million investment in improvements to our venues; and

    —  the introduction of printed decision notices for all parties to take away with them on the day of the hearing at 10 main sites, with plans for wider implementation to all sites across the country.

  2.9  It is anticipated that this programme of work will start to bear fruit in terms of performance gains during 2001-02, with more effective tribunal hearings meaning fewer adjournments, fewer cases having to wait longer for final determination within the Appeals Service, and greater capacity for first (and, usually, the only) hearings.

  2.10  The next three years will see a rolling programme of improvements to our venues with expected expenditure of about £1 million for each year. These improvements will bring about enhancements in access and suitability for all our users.

Performance targets for 2001-02

  2.11  These improvements will be necessary if we are to meet our performance targets for 2001-02. A full set of targets, as set out in our Business Plan for 2001-02, is reproduced, for ease of reference, at Annex B.

  2.12  We will be using the coming year to concentrate on reducing variation in performance to achieve a more consistent standard of service to appellants wherever they live across Great Britain. The overall waiting time target remains 14 weeks but we shall be seeking to bring those centres who cannot yet consistently meet this level of performance up to the target while ensuring that our best performing centres maintain or improve upon their current levels. This coupled with the take-on of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit appeals from July 2001, and preparations for the implementation of Child Support Reform, will make this a very challenging target.

  2.13  In addition, attention will continue to focus on reducing the numbers and age of our older cases and, new for 2001-02, a target has been set to ensure that appeals referred back to us from the Social Security and Child Support Commissioners are reheard timeously.

End-to-end performance

  2.14  Attention will also focus on the end-to-end processing of appeals. The intention is to identify and commission improvements in the end-to-end processing of appeals, leading to the development of cross-agency end-to-end performance targets by April 2002.

  2.15  A senior cross-agency group has been set up. This group—the Appeals Integrated Service Delivery Team—is chaired by the Chief Executive of the Appeals Service and includes senior representatives from the Benefits Agency, the Child Support Agency and the DSS Adjudication and Constitutional Issues Branch. The group met for the first time in January 2001 and will meet every quarter.

  2.16  Terms of reference for this group are:

    —  To develop and improve cross-agency appeals handling and delivery to produce an improved end-to-end service for both users and operators of the appeals system.

    —  To identify and tackle barriers to improving performance at both first and second tier levels.

    —  To ensure effective arrangements exist to improve feedback loops on quality of decisions and raising standards of performance.

    —  To develop proposals for an end-to-end appeals performance management regime which incorporates targets and enhanced Management Information Statistics to take effect from April 2002.

  2.17  As the Terms of Reference suggest, it is intended that this group has a wide remit to look not only at end-to-end performance to identify where and how improvements can be made but also at the effectiveness of processes, both in terms of the hand-over arrangements between agencies and the arrangements for feeding back to first-tier agencies on the quality of their work.

  2.18  This group is deliberately a senior group—it was important that it should have the authority to make any necessary changes to processes or systems—but it is intended that it will receive input from a large number of staff actually processing or presenting appeals work in all agencies. To facilitate this, it was decided to utilise the opportunities provided by the Departmental Intranet—a dedicated discussion group on the Intranet has been set up and sponsored by the Chief Executive of the Appeals Service. This discussion group has only been running for a couple of weeks, but the signs are that it will produce fruitful lines of enquiry for the senior team to pursue.

  2.19  The work of this group will complement the President's own statutory report on the standards of first-tier decision-making, which will be presented to the Secretary of State in June.

3.  RAISING STANDARDS

Judicial Standards

  3.1  The quality of the tribunal hearing and the tribunal decision respectively are the two most important elements of the whole appeals system, which exists so that justice is done, and seen to be done. This puts a premium on the achievement—and maintenance—of the highest standards of judicial work. Two factors are key here—the training and monitoring of panel members.

  3.2  Training of panel members is the statutory duty of the President, who is advised by a Judicial Training Advisory Group. During 2000-01, the Appeals Service ran two substantial packages of training for all panel members. Firstly, a package of equal treatment training, and secondly, training in the European Convention on Human Rights.

  3.3  In addition, induction training was provided for new members and for members who were ticketed to hear new types of case (particularly relevant this year as additional members were ticketed for DLA appeals, to cope with the rise in intake in this benefit type). Training in monitoring and appraisal skills was also delivered to full-time chairmen; and the annual conference for Regional and District Chairmen concentrated on Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (HB/CTB) training, which will now be delivered by full-time chairmen to those part-time legally qualified panel members (LQPM) who are to be ticketed for these appeals.

  3.4  The training programme for 2001-02 is just as challenging as that successfully delivered during 2000-01. This has been agreed following a thorough review of judicial training conducted by our Judicial Training Advisory Group which resulted in the formulation of a Judicial Training Plan for 2001-02 and beyond. Aside from the HB/CTB training for selected LQPMs the key elements of this plan are a series of residential conferences for lawyers and regional training days for all panel members. There will also be induction training for new members appointed during the latest recruitment round.

  3.5  As important as training is the monitoring and appraisal of panel members. Our previous memorandum to the Committee in 1999 explained that we were in the process of developing arrangements for the monitoring of panel members by District (full-time) Chairmen. These arrangements were finalised and formally promulgated in June 2000—we continue to support our full-time chairmen in the effective implementation of the appraisal system.

  3.6  To a very significant degree, the successful implementation of judicial training packages, the appraisal system, and other essential judicial management activities depend on our full-time chairmen. In recognition of this fact, and to support an ambitious programme of judicial management activity during 2001-02, we have agreed with the Lord Chancellor that our complement of full-time chairmen will be increased. During the first half of the year, the Lord Chancellor's Department will recruit on our behalf one additional Regional Chairman, to be based in Birmingham, and five additional District Chairmen.

Quality of administration

  3.7  The dramatic reduction of the backlog and other performance gains have allowed us over the past 18 months to concentrate to a much larger degree on the quality of our administrative work. A significant factor here has been our investment in getting the right staff in place with the right skills to do the job.

  3.8  Throughout the mid-90s a deliberate decision was taken by our predecessors to employ a significant proportion of fixed-term contract and casual staff to provide flexibility in dealing with fluctuations in caseload and the uncertainty then facing the future of the Independent Tribunal Service. Whilst this offered the organisation flexibility, morale and quality inevitably suffered. So, during 1999-2000 we abandoned the previous reliance on temporary staff. The vast majority of staff are now established civil servants with a long-term vested interest in the future development of this service.

  3.9  In addition, we have just completed a major restructuring of our operational—front line—management structure, with the creation of 15 new local management posts. These changes are designed to ensure that we build on the improvements that we have already made in the delivery of our services, to increase our capacity to manage effectively further necessary changes and to provide the right level of support to judicial colleagues.

  3.10  Alongside these changes we have continued our significant investment in training and development. Careful targeting has been key in our approach and with senior team members taking responsibility for individual elements of the training we have ensured a strong link with improvements in business performance. Over the past year the majority of our national training activity focused on basic training for appeals processing staff and tribunal clerks; equal treatment and ECHR training for all staff; customer service skills; and leadership and management development.

  3.11  Details of this and other programme training will be included in the Agency's Annual Report. This commitment to improving performance through effective training saw us achieve Investors in People accreditation in November 1999.

  3.12  Our training programme for 2001-02 is no less ambitious. It will concentrate on three main areas. Business critical including training for the introduction of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit appeals; business improvement, encompassing a variety of customer service modules; and management and staff development, focusing on effective leadership and performance management.

4.  PUTTING SERVICE FIRST

  4.1  Alongside our performance improvements and renewed emphasis on the quality of our work, we have also sought to adjust the culture of the organisation so that individual administrators—and, indeed, our whole improvement programme—are much more clearly focused on the needs of all those who use or rely upon our services.

  4.2  Not only have we secured service improvements through our effective tribunals programme (see para 2.7 above), but we have also taken a more pro-active approach during the year to finding out what is actually important to our customers. For the first time in several years, we conducted a customer survey. We are currently in the process of considering key findings from this survey.

  4.3  We have consulted with representative organisations through a new National Forum and an underpinning network of tribunal user groups. We have specifically sought support from RNID in the conduct of a Disability Audit to establish which parts of our service need improving. The results of this audit are forming part of a wider diversity strategy which in turn will inform our service planning for the future.

  4.4  Supporting this renewed focus on customer service are a new family of leaflets under the "Putting Service First" banner. They include:

    —  "a statement of Appeals Service aims and standards", which sets out the standards of service appellants can expect from us (and against which we will measure our performance in the coming year);

    —  "information about our service", which gives general information about our service and the different stages of the process from making an appeal to the actual hearing; and

    —  "what to do if things go wrong", which tells appellants what they can do if they are not satisfied with our service.

  4.5  This last leaflet sets out our complaints procedures and deals with the process for making a complaint either about the administration of an appeal or about the conduct of members at the hearing. Both sets of procedures were reviewed prior to publication of this leaflet.

5.  IN CONCLUSION

  5.1  During the hearing in 1999, the Committee voiced concerns about how the new relationship between President and Chief Executive might work in practice. We believe it has been a productive relationship which has provided a model for increasingly productive partnerships between judicial officers and administrative staff at all levels. During the past year, senior officers of the judicial organisation and the agency have agreed the key, joint, priorities for the future development of our Service, and we have each developed complementary plans for improving those elements of the Service which fall to us.

  5.2  We hope that this brief note will assist the Committee. More detailed information about our vision for the future—and our work programme for the next year—can be found in our submission to the Leggatt review and the Business Plan for 2001-02 respectively, both of which are available on our website at www.appeals-service.gov.uk.


1   The time the appeal was received in the Appeals Service to the time of the first hearing. Back

2   The proportion of cases older than 26 weeks achieved was 17 per cent as against our target of 10 per cent. Back

3   The incidence of avoidable adjournments achieved was 10 per cent as against our target of 25 per cent. Back


 
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