Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 25 APRIL 2001
(Mr Ward) 40 working days for the production of the
evidence in order to get to us. The scope for that is an issue
between level of resources that are available, the ability of
the staff and the evidence is in front of them.
41. There is scope there for a very much greater
degree of improvement taking into account what you said about
the dead time at the start for speeding the process up?
(Mr Ward) The real improvement comes in the quality
of first tier decisions where we can reduce the number of appeals
42. When you met the Committee in 1999 you said
you had a twin strategy for dealing with the backlog of inherited
cases of some 77,000. We understood there were something like
800 still around but in your memorandum you say there are 728.
(Mr Ward) Yes.
43. Those 728 cases have been waiting for over
(Mr Ward) They have indeed.
44. Could you give us some information about
that? Why are they still there?
(Mr Ward) The majority of those cases that are still
in that number are relying upon a decision at a higher court,
we are awaiting the outcome of a lead case. We have progressed,
they are awaiting outcomes of decisions elsewhere.
45. These ones are different from the stockpiled
(Mr Ward) There are cases which are awaiting a decision
of the Court of Appeal, for example, which we cannot progress.
There is a queue throughout the system of which we have currently
some 6,500 cases which are waiting, of which
46. Those 728 are part of that?
(Mr Ward) They are not all that. Some of those are
cases which for one reason or another we still have not been able
to get through. They are all in view and we are trying actively
to progress them. In some of them, it is fair to say, the appellant
is not all that keen on coming to the tribunal with the case because
there might be, for example, an overpayment case from which the
appellant is not to gain and in that case the Secretary of State
is the main beneficiary of that case.
47. The second part of the strategy was to reduce
waiting times for all current cases. On the basis of it you seem
to have failed to reach the Secretary of State's target of ten
(Mr Ward) Yes. We have talked about waiting times
in relation to the throughput, the second bit is not to allow
the backlog of all these cases to accumulate in the way in which
they had when we inherited them, in which over 50 per cent of
the cases were over six months old. Currently about 19 per cent
of our case load cases are over six months. Our target was 10
per cent, very much an aspirational target given that we were
significantly away from that originally. It is the right behaviourial
activity. It is about the way in which we tackle cases that make
our tribunals more effective at the first time of hearing, so
how can we get the right evidence, the right people in the room,
to try and get them right at the first time of deciding. When
a case comes out for an adjournment, it is how quickly can we
get that case back in. There should be no cases that have not
had a hearing. There are no cases that have not had a hearing
in cases that are over six months old. It is how quickly can we
get cases back into the tribunal room. We have introduced measures
which include action sheets signed by the chairman and the clerk
of the tribunal on the day which says what specific action needs
to be taken before that case can be brought back into the tribunal.
We have active chasing of progress of those cases, whether it
is further evidence from the Agency, whether it is further medical
evidence, which is often the case and which is often what delays
the process of getting them back into tribunal. We are on the
case but it is not an easy task.
48. Can you give us a bit more information about
these 17,850 cases which have been waiting for more than six months?
How long have they actually been waiting? We accept that you have
got some stockpiling going on.
(Mr Ward) The cases over six months old? They range
from a day over six months old to in some cases, as we have already
talked about, over two years. We tackle cases on the basis of
first in, first out. We are determined to deal with the oldest
cases and that is why our targets are geared to the type of behaviourial
effect we want from staff, which is how can we get a case back
into the tribunal as quickly as possible and get it decided.
49. These over 10,000 are not cases where a
higher court is involved?
(Mr Ward) That is right. They are cases which have
been adjourned by and large and where we are trying to progress
the case back into tribunal.
Mr King: I think it would be good to get some
more detailed information about these cases, the types of cases
they are and the reasons.
50. Would it be easy to do that? We understand
what is happening to the 700-odd that are waiting for the Appeal
Court but a profile of the age of the 10,000-odd, if it is easy
to do, would be very helpful to us.
(Mr Ward) The age profile is easy to do, the question
is which types of cases are being held up and why. We can produce
some information for you on that.
51. Can I just move on to another aspect of
delays which is appeals to Commissioners. I am sure you aware
since we saw you in June 1999 of our inquiry into the work of
the Social Security and Child Support Commissioners and one of
the issues that we highlighted then was the delays at Appeals
Service level were hampering the handover of cases to the Commissioners.
Can you tell me what steps you have taken to unblock those bottlenecks
since the publication of our report in May of last year, if any?
I am being positive, you see, I am assuming you have taken action.
(Judge Harris) We have taken lots and lots of steps.
The Lord Chancellor has set up a working group, in conjunction
with the Secretary of State, to deal with precisely the problem
that you have identified. On our side there are, I suppose, a
number of points that I would like to make. The first is that
before the appeal process from us can get going an appellant needs
a Statement of Reasons. For some time I have set down a standard
for producing that statement as far as the chairman is concerned.
We are still not there in terms of meeting that standard as close
as I would like it to be and that is one area where we are causing
some delay. There is also a question about how then the case is
progressed because from that point the Statement of Reasons may
have been produced by a chairman in long hand or on a tape or
something of that kind which then has to be typed, so there is
an area for Neil to deal with in terms of the time that it takes
there. We, I think, are reasonably good when we actually get an
application for leave to appeal. That is processed by our chairmen
reasonably quickly and that is within a few days.
52. Can you give me some targets? You have mentioned
a few days and you have talked about standards but have you, within
the standards you have laid out, set targets for each of those
areas? Within what period do you expect the full written reasons?
(Judge Harris) Ten working days. That is the standard.
I can tell you that there have been some instances that have been
drawn to my attention where the delay has been far in excess of
that and I have had no hesitation in referring those cases to
the Lord Chancellor. It is completely unacceptable for chairmen
to sit on these cases and not produce the statements in time.
I have got some sympathy because very often they do not get them
until some time after they have dealt with the case and they have
to try to rack their brains, as it were. That is a problem that
we have to face. As I say, I have no hesitation in referring bad
cases to the Lord Chancellor with a view to removing somebody
if they are not capable of doing it. We are not there. By and
large the full-timers have got into a position where they produce
their statements within that ten day timescale, some still need
some pressure. Part-timers are much more difficult because they
are not with us, we do not have the same degree of control over
them. They may be on holiday, they may be on leave, they may be
doing a tricky case or a case that is absorbing their time and
they then get a request from us saying "please will you provide
the full statement". They are not with us and we do not have
the same degree of control over them. As you know, they handle
something like 80 per cent of all tribunal cases, so they are
a very large constituent of our effort. All I can do is to say
how important it is. I have recently issued a protocol in which
I have reiterated the ten day period and I have said that we are
going to chase them much more vigorously than we did in the past,
and I have made it perfectly clear that if there is a continued
failure to produce them then it is a matter for the Lord Chancellor.
That sort of pressure is pressure that I can exert on my part
of the process. In other parts of the process obviously there
are administrative steps to be taken and we are clearly also addressing
those to get these cases as quickly as possible to the Commissioner.
53. I remember the evidence being presented
to us that even once the papers had been produced there was a
delay in transferring those papers from you to the Commissioners.
Is that one of these administrative procedures that you are now
looking at and tightening up?
(Mr Ward) The position should be that they should
go forthwith, there is no reason for them to be delayed on our
part. Once we have the papers back from the chairman who has considered
the reasons for leave to appeal and granted the leave to appeal
the cases should go, and our staff are clear on that. We have
reissued guidance on the handling of all elements of the process
of Commissioners' cases and we have produced this year a basic
training package across all the modules for all the elements of
our service, specifically to train new staff but also for other
staff through a retraining, refresher training process. Training
on handling Commissioners' cases is within that process. We are
alert to the need to move cases through. There should be no reason
why cases should not proceed straight away to Commissioners once
we know the Commissioner has written asking for a file, there
is no reason for that not to turn round. Where we envisage any
bottlenecks, for example, in the typing of statements we might
have received from chairmen we bring in additional typists in
order to pursue any backlogs. When we get cases back from Commissioners
you will have seen in the targets the Secretary of State set for
us this year that there has been introduced a target for rehearing
of Commissioners' cases that come to us, which is six weeks less
than the waiting time for normal cases, first tier cases.
54. When you were before us last we were a bit
concerned, and you were concerned too, and you frankly admitted
it, about the quality of the administration within the Appeals
Service. From what you have said already you are much more upbeat
about many things now. Since then do you think that you have had
the necessary investment and assistance to improve the quality
of administration? Has that been forthcoming?
(Mr Ward) Our funding is at the same level as we received
when we came to the Committee last time. If you remember last
time, although there were concerns about the quality of administration,
we personally did not have concerns about the level of funding
we had, it was about the deployment of the resources we had at
our disposal: were we using our funds effectively; were we handling
cases once rather than twice; were we removing levels of rework
within the system? I still hold to that position. I think we have
adequate funds to run the number of tribunals we need to run given
the venues that we have. We have made a substantial investment
in the accommodation in our tribunals nationally to bring venues
that were not of a standard that we regarded as an acceptable
public standard up to scratch and to bring in new venues wherever
we have been able to do so. We have spent £1.2/1.3 million
this year on that. We plan to spend the same next year and the
year after that. We have invested over £2 million in training,
both of administrative staff and judicial staff, which was an
issue before the Committee last time. We have invested two million
in IT this year, we are planning to spend something like another
£3½ million in each of the next two years. I do not
think shortage of funds is an issue for us.
55. You have used the funds you have got wisely
and you have been adequately supported?
(Mr Ward) That is my belief, yes.
(Judge Harris) I can say from my perspective that
the administration has improved since I started in March 1998,
I have no doubt about that, and I pay tribute to Neil and his
senior team for bringing about many of those changes. That is
not to say, as I think you drew out, that there are still places,
centres and offices that are not doing as well as they should
be doing. It is a curious thing that they do not necessarily always
remain the same. When I started they were different offices that
were performing badly but are now doing extremely well. It is
probably the chemistry of a particular office, the quality of
the leadership that office has and the quality of the staff at
any particular time. In broad terms there has been a significant
improvement in administrative support, I have to say that, but
there are patches where clearly Neil recognises as well as anybody
else that there is plenty of room for improvement.
56. One of the other things that we were worried
about and you were worried about was the possibility of staff
reductions in the year 2000-01. Have these in fact taken place
or, if they have not taken place, have you been able to use the
staff you have got for the better ratio of cases to staff?
(Mr Ward) We have changed the nature of the staff
since we were last at the Committee. We had substantial numbers
of contract staff, fixed term contract staff and casual staff.
We have now got high levels of permanent staff who have got a
long term vested interest in the quality and the nature of this
service. That is bringing its rewards in terms of people's commitment
to the job and to delivering appeals. People enjoy working in
the service that we are in. We have got about 920 staff in post,
928 staff in post, which is about the same level, interestingly,
as we had previously. What we have not got is the same staff necessarily
in post that we had then. We have kept the best of those staff
who were on contract, we have kept the best of those staff who
were on casual and we have converted them to long term civil servants.
57. Is it more expensive, now you have converted
to long term?
(Mr Ward) No.
58. It is always an interesting question when
you move from contract staff to permanent staff.
(Mr Ward) No. I thinktouch woodwe pay
them the same. Actually it is a better investment in the staff
because we were training our contract staff, we were training
our casual staff, at the same levels as we were training permanent
staff but we were only retaining them for up to two years. We
needed to train them at that level because they had a job to do
when they were working for us. It is better value for money in
the quality of staff we have and the nature of staff.
59. I was interested to hear you say earlier
on that you are not anticipating a huge case load increase with
Housing Benefit and Council Tax. Given some of the things we have
heard on this Committee about Housing Benefit and Council Tax
maybe you are being a little bit optimistic. Are you anticipating
any extra resources to deal with these extra cases?
(Mr Ward) We have had support to match the case load.
What we have by and large been funded on is both the money that
we needed in order to set up, to adjust our systems in order to
cater for Housing Benefit appeals coming in and we are ready and
waiting now to take on Housing Benefit appeals properly from the
end of May in anticipation of 2 July. We have also been funded
on a case basis at an average of 15,000 I think is the level of
intake that is anticipated. I do not think anyone has any better
idea of the range. We have looked at the survey of local authorities
and they do not really have an idea because they can only judge
on the number of appeals they have reviewed.
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