Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
WEDNESDAY 25 APRIL 2001
20. Can I ask the President what view he has
as to adjournments? Is there a policy as such with regard to that?
(Judge Harris) No. You cannot lay down a judicial
policy. You can discourage adjournments, and I do, and everybody
knows that I discourage adjournments, but at the end an individual
tribunal has to make up its own mind on the particular facts of
the case whether adjourning is in the interests of doing a good
job. It would be quite improper of me to interfere with that.
There is a dilemma here, just picking up a point that you have
just raised. Clearly in cases, particularly in the Disability
Benefit cases, there is more scope for the possibility of having
to adjourn because the appellants will come along very often and
will not have had sufficient time perhaps to have prepared the
medical evidence that they need in order to present their case
and will ask for further time. Sometimes that would have been
obvious at an earlier stage, so if we previewed the case we might
have been able to spot that this was the sort of case for which
we ought to accelerate that process so we did not waste a hearing
which then became adjourned. It is a balance, is it not? If we
spend too much previewing all of these cases we then find that
we run out of time to actually hear them. We have to form a judgment
really. Some of the cases we do look at in advance to see whether
or not we can intervene at an early stage and say "we would
like further medical evidence in this case, it is obvious that
we need it and we are going to need it when it comes to hearing".
21. That is case management which is becoming
part of the new culture of the judicial system.
(Judge Harris) Of course, and I think that we will
probably need to move further down that road. We are already doing
it to a significant extent but there are limits to the extent
to which one can do it effectively. Even if one looks at a case
at the case management point it still will not necessarily give
you the answer as to what is going to happen when the case is
actually put on for hearing. It does not guarantee that there
are not going to be further adjournments. There is clearly room
for judgment as to how much case management we indulge in and
how much we do not.
22. Thank you for that. Are there regional variations
in performance on, firstly, clearance times and, secondly, waiting
(Mr Ward) Yes, there are. We have not made as much
progress as we might have wanted to in three of our areas: Wales
and the South West, the South East of England and the area covered
by our processing centre in Nottingham, two of which are our largest
centres. We have made substantial progress both in terms of changing
the quality and nature of the activity that is happening but we
have not made the same degree of progress there as we have elsewhere.
(Mr Ward) A number of reasons. One is that we have
more difficulty with recruitment and retention in those particular
areas. We are based in Cardiff, Sutton and in Nottingham.
24. I am surprised you say that.
(Mr Ward) Sorry?
25. I am surprised you say that because that
might have struck people as being very much the case as far as
London and the South East is concerned but perhaps not Wales and
(Mr Ward) Other people sometimes pay more money than
we pay. The sense of improvement, which is rife across the whole
of our service, means there is a significantly different atmosphere
in our offices now than there was two years ago, indeed than there
was a year ago. That has not yet permeated through those offices
that are most hard pressed and, therefore, it is a combination
of "Is this the best office I want to work in? Is it a hard
pressed office? Is there a better employer or a better paying
employer in the area", which does have an effect on us. It
also has an effect on our ability to retain the best of our staff.
We have wastage, which is fairly typical across the country, of
13 per cent but we are struggling, as I have said. We also have
difficulty where the span of responsibility is large, particularly
in, let us say, Wales and the South West, which is a very large
region for us that we cover from North Wales to Truro in Cardiffsorry,
in Cornwall. That is a big span for the level of manager we have
had in the offices. They have performed heroically but we are
about to make substantial changes in investing in additional front
line, additional experienced managers to come in and try to put
greater management attention in helping the staff and supporting
the staff in the delivery of the service.
Mr Thomas: You still adopt a colonial attitude
to North Wales, do you not? North Wales has to be governed from
Cardiff, is that the case?
26. Well, Truro is being governed from Cardiff
(Judge Harris) There are lots of practical arguments
in favour of saying that it would be much better dealt with from
(Judge Harris) But there are sensitivities here and
obviously those are sensitivities that we have taken into consideration.
28. Thank you for that. The target time set
by the Secretary of State for waiting times is now defined as
14 weeks and you are getting towards that, are you not?
(Mr Ward) The figures nationally are 13.6 weeks.
29. You are on that. Do you still think that
is too high? Presumably you would be wanting to aim for something
less than that?
(Mr Ward) Our ambition is to move to substantially
less than that.
30. To what?
(Mr Ward) It is hard for me to speculate that far
ahead. I think we thought we would probably make more progress
this year than we have. Our first year we had massive improvement
in the delivery of this service, we reduced the case load by half.
We did have significant improvements in the waiting times and
the clearance times but we are not controllers of our own destiny,
we are not controllers of the volume of appeals that land on our
desk. We have had to divert some of our attention still with throughput
rather than quality.
31. As far as waiting times are concerned, you
are controlling your own destiny because you are only measuring
the time from when you first receive the paper.
(Mr Ward) I have volume plus resources I have to balance.
32. They are going down.
(Mr Ward) Which are?
33. Volumes of appeals are going down.
(Mr Ward) 260,000.
34. Can I ask you what you think a reasonable
time, civilised time, for waiting should be for payments, bearing
in mind very many of them are vulnerable people, very anxious?
(Mr Ward) Yes. I think over timeand I do not
know how quickly that time isif we were getting down to
around ten weeks then I think we would be making significant progress
but we are not there yet and we are not capable.
(Judge Harris) Can I make this point. 14 weeks, yes,
is the period now for waiting times but of that period there is
the dead period at the start of the process where, although we
are notified of the appeal and get the papers, we have to wait
for the appellant to produce the form which tells us whether or
not it is to be an oral or a paper hearing. That is a period in
which we can do nothing. If you exclude that period from the overall
waiting time then the time that we are playing with is in the
order, just a little in excess of nine weeks. That is the period
we can work on in terms of making a reduction. We cannot reduce
the first period for the point that you made at the very beginning,
that it is right that there should be time for appellants to be
able to embark on that part of the process. That is where we need
to concentrate, it is in that nine week period where it is in
our control that improvement needs to be made. I think it is very
difficult to say what is the ideal point because it varies from
case to case. If we reduce it too much we will get complaints
and we have already had them in our best performing offices from
welfare rights groups in particular saying "We have not been
given enough time to get the medical evidence". They have
severe problems in getting medical evidence from doctors willing
to see their clients. So we have to take that into account. Now,
there may be other appellants who would like their appeals heard,
as you rightly say, much, much sooner and it would be nice to
have a more flexible system where we could advance those who wanted
them to be advanced. At the same time I think we have to recognise
that there will always be quite a large category of cases, especially
in the disability field, where to try and reduce the period too
much will mean that they will not have enough time to properly
present the evidence to the tribunal and that is something that
we need to look at.
Mr Thomas: Thank you, that is very helpful.
35. I want to explore this difference between
clearance times and waiting times just a little bit. Obviously
you want to focus in on the bit that you have got responsibility
for, I understand that. Can I just ask two questions. One is:
are the overall clearance times publicised somewhere as much as
waiting times are, not necessarily in your reports but presumably
people who are accessing the service should know what is happening?
The second thing is have you any evidence at all that the early
bit for which you are not responsible, which is the responsibility
of the Benefits Agency, has been improving at the same time as
yours has? The overall clearance is getting better but it may
well be because you are getting better and the bit at the start
is not getting better. I would just be interested in hearing your
observations on that.
(Mr Ward) The reason we focus on waiting times is
because that is something we can do something about within our
service, that is the future.
36. I understand that.
(Mr Ward) We have to learn from the past in order
to deliver for the future. There were two parts to your question.
The second part was do I have any evidence of improvement in the
first tier agencies or changing the first tier agencies.
37. Are they getting their act together as well
at the same time as you are and getting the papers to you quicker?
(Mr Ward) They are getting their act together. Whether
we are seeing that yet reflected through in the clearance times
I would say that is not yet happening but you will have a chance
to talk to the Benefits Agency people. There is significant improvement
and focus of attention still on all elements of the end to end
process in improving the system. Clearance times have a historical
effect and, for example, we are about to clear, I hope, a whole
range of cases that have been stayed because there is a case at
a higher court. They will all show within our clearance times
and will have a significant effect on the figures. So the figures
do not necessarily identify current cases that are relevant, they
are always historical.
38. They may be historical but the actual
(Mr Ward) There are individuals sitting on each of
those appeals and, therefore, waiting for a decision, not all
of which we can control even within the whole of the social security
system because some of the decisions have been taken elsewhere.
As to whether those figures are as much in view as waiting times,
I think the answer is currently not. They are available when people
ask for them and I always make them available. I have a target
this year which is to offer advice to the Secretary of State on
what the end to end target should be so that the targets will
be set next year, i.e. 2002-03, which will have an end to end
target which will be publicly set, monitored and measured.
39. What is the scope for improvement at the
earlier part of the process? How long does it roughly take on
(Mr Ward) I think it takes roughly, on average, about