Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. Are you suggesting if the case load is significantly higher than you have anticipated, you will get the funding to match it? Is that the agreement?
  (Mr Ward) I do not think I have an agreement but we have not yet had difficulties with the Secretary of State over funding for increased volumes of appeals.


  61. There is a plan B for that?
  (Mr Ward) We are monitoring the cases and we are actively watching it. We, and the Department, clearly inspect the position and if we see a significant increase in the volumes of appeals coming in from local authorities, or a significant backlog in appeals which may already be building up as we speak, they should not be but they may be, then we will have further discussions with the Department. I would be very surprised if we were not looking for a successful implementation of Housing Benefit.

Dr Naysmith

  62. We know that significant capital investment in IT is planned, we have talked about this before. I was interested in something in your Business Plan. It says you are exploring a number of sources to fund IT modernisation. Are you saying that the capital allocation from the Department is not enough and you are looking for other ways to raise the money? Is that the implication of that statement?
  (Mr Ward) The other sources are other sources within either the Department or within the Treasury, for example, for modernisation funds or invest to save budgets which are available particularly for those who work in partnership with other providers. We work in partnership with 409 local authorities, Benefits Agency, Child Support Agency, other Departments, all welfare rights. There are lots of opportunities for us to consider. Whether we have got enough funding, I do not think we will ever have enough funding to do as much IT as we want to do as quickly as we want to do it. We have a very good IT system in place at the moment but it is not e.enabled as it were, so we cannot run browser based applications on the existing system and, therefore, we cannot take online cases from individual appellants or from welfare rights. That is a substantial step change we need to make. At the moment I am pretty confident, I cannot say I am entirely confident, I am going to secure all those resources from the Department but we are making the case and we all have targets that by 2005 we will offer online services to appellants. We are going to trial over the next year—using money from the invest to save budget which the Chancellor holds—video conferencing within tribunal rooms in order to see whether for those either appellants, welfare rights or, indeed, presenting officers who find difficulty in getting to our venues, whether or not we cannot use video conference facility links in order to try and help people giving evidence to the tribunal. That is an example of where we are testing how we might modernise our service.

  63. I think we want to move now to a different subject, which is the question of judicial standards and the role of the President. Probably this is more for Judge Harris than Mr Ward. We already touched on a little bit of it when we talked about the concerns we had about sufficient panel members the last time you discussed this. Are you satisfied it is currently the case that you have got sufficient panel members? It sounded from what was said as if it may be patchy depending on which part of the country you are in.
  (Judge Harris) Yes, I think it does. Overall we do. Indeed, in the year probably 1999 when our case load dropped, in some areas we were not finding it easily properly to use our part-time members in particular. Some were finding they were not being offered enough sittings. By and large we do. There are one or two areas that are potential problems. It is not easy to recruit consultants to sit on industrial injury cases. We have some very distinguished consultants sitting on our tribunals. I have not looked at the age profile but it is probably quite high. Getting young consultants and enticing them away from their health trusts is very, very difficult and I think this is a problem across all tribunals, and we are not the only one who is going to be suffering from this particular difficulty. That is really the only area where we are experiencing problems in getting the panel members we need. No problems in getting disability members in the right places. By and large we can attract lawyers. My hunch, having visited quite a significant number of tribunals and seen them in operation, is that the quality of member is improving. We are getting better quality members. So I do not really anticipate that. I am certainly not seeking any additional part-timers in order to cope with Housing Benefit. What I have done is to train in each region a number of our existing part-timers in Housing Benefit work and, together with the full-timers, I am hoping that they will be able to deal with the volume that we get. We have a plan B and that is we have conversion training, as it were, and if we find we run short we can simply invite some more part-timers for additional training and then move them on to Housing Benefit.

  64. It is interesting what you said there because the last time we had a discussion about this you recommended to us that full-time lawyers within the service produce better quality decisions and are more cost-effective.
  (Judge Harris) I certainly still say that.

  65. As a result of that, just to prove that we listen to what our witnesses say, we recommended to the Government that this was a good idea and they said back to us, we were told, that the Appeals Service was collecting data to help inform just such an analysis, but we have never heard the outcome of that. Can you tell us what the outcome of that collection of data was?
  (Judge Harris) I cannot precisely answer that but in the current year we are recruiting an additional regional chairman because, in my view, the Midlands region had become unmanageable in terms of judicial resources, so there will be an additional regional chairman in Birmingham and five additional full-time chairmen in the current round. In terms of evaluating, and being a lawyer I was not familiar with this way forward, I need to produce a `business case' in order to show that they are indeed better and more cost-effective than part-timers. It is a very difficult exercise to prove in pounds, shillings and pence that employing a full-timer is better value than using part-timers. We are getting there and by August of this year we hope to have produced the material on which we can say that it will be better to use full-timers rather than part-timers. The problem is in putting a sum on all the things that a full-timer does outside the tribunal. In fact they do a great deal outside the tribunal. Because we have so many part-timers, the full-timers have to spend a considerable amount of time on training and on appraising, supporting, mentoring and so on and so forth. Putting a price on that is the big problem but we think we are getting there. It is still my view that the service would be better, would be more coherent, we would have better overall standards, if we went down a full-timer route rather than a part-timer one. One still needs part-timers, especially in a fluctuating workload. It would be folly not to think that they should not be an important ingredient, they will remain an important ingredient, but the current balance is not right in my view, and I said that last time and I maintain it. We must work in order to get that balance better once we have produced our case.

  66. The other thing that we examined last time was the shortage of minority ethnic people, particularly legally qualified people, on tribunals. Have you made any progress there?
  (Judge Harris) The short answer is not much. There is a reasonable representation of ethnic minority panel members in medical panel members. There is insufficient representation, in my view, in lawyers, the small number of financial members we have and the disability members. Recruitment, of course, is now entirely the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor's Department. The functions that Presidents before me had of appointing non-lawyers has gone and now he is responsible for all of that. I know that the Lord Chancellor's Department is actively pursuing measures to try to encourage members of the ethnic community to become judges wherever in the system, for us and for anywhere else, and we do attend those events that the Lord Chancellor's Department put on with ethnic minority groups trying to encourage them to join. Beyond encouragement it is very difficult to know what it is we can do. Some of it is inevitable. Some of it is simply because there are not sufficient—yet—black lawyers in the system who have reached the sort of age where people are looking for judicial appointment of some kind. That will change over time, there is no doubt about that, but it is a long process and we are not there by any means.

  67. Is there anything you can do or is there just not much?
  (Judge Harris) We can—

  68. Surely there must be people who will recommend others who will come across the kind of work you do?
  (Judge Harris) Of course, and we certainly do that. Particularly we target solicitors' firms who specialise in welfare rights work because we want lawyers from that field to join us and, of course, there are members of the ethnic communities working in those solicitors' firms. Beyond that it is not easy. We always make it clear that we would want to recruit more if we can and if they are suitable for the work that we want them to do.

  69. There is a little anomaly in the system we think, which is, as you have just been saying, appointments are made by the Lord Chancellor's Department but people are paid by the Department of Social Security. Is there a possibility of conflict of interest there or would there be a better case for the Lord Chancellor's Department taking responsibility for determining and paying everyone?
  (Judge Harris) Yes, there is a case.

  70. Have you made any representations to that effect?
  (Judge Harris) Yes.

  71. You have?
  (Judge Harris) Yes.

  72. Can we know a little bit more about them?
  (Judge Harris) As you know, Sir Andrew Leggatt has been tasked with producing a review of administrative justice and tribunals and in our submission I make it clear that my part of the organisation, non-departmental public body is I think what I am called, should transfer to the Lord Chancellor's Department because that is where we think we ought to live. The short answer to your question is yes. A rather more balanced answer may perhaps be that I do not actually think that there is a great deal of conflict simply because the money is coming out of the DSS rather than the Lord Chancellor's Department. It is still coming out of the public purse whether it is actually being paid by a civil servant who is processing the claim in the DSS or a civil servant who is processing the claim for the Lord Chancellor's Department. I think one can overdo that point. In general terms it is right that we should, in my view, belong to the Lord Chancellor's Department.
  (Mr Ward) I do not think there is any evidence to suggest that there is a conflict of interest caused by where the funding of money comes, it is the way the tribunal members conduct themselves in the tribunals which makes the difference between a perception of independence or impartiality.

  73. Finally, you will be glad to hear, the President now has a formal role in giving feedback to the first tier agencies on the quality of decision making particularly. Can you share with us your main findings so far? Have you anything you would like to say on that subject that can be written down at this stage?

  Chairman: You are covered by privilege.
  (Judge Harris) The stage that I am at at the moment is that I am on target for producing a report to the Secretary of State in June. I have already produced a first draft, it is out for consultation with the stakeholders, and a second draft is going out shortly. It is vitally important that whatever conclusions we are able to draw I put in the right context and make them fair. If they are not seen to be fair conclusions then simply people will ignore them. Would it be wrong of me to suggest to you that you ask me this question after June? You will undoubtedly be asking me back again. I am almost a permanent resident at these occasions. I will obviously then be able to go through my findings with you with the various reservations or putting it in its context, which I think is very important that I do so that everybody regards it as a fair assessment. I think we disclosed the pilot to you. We have obviously found some trends and we will be dealing with that in the report and I will be, I hope, putting them in a fair context. Would you forgive me if I do not answer that question?

  Dr Naysmith: It would be very nice to see a copy of the draft report and compare it with the final report. We cannot ask for that.

Mr King

  74. We want to turn to the quality of the service you provide. The Secretary of State gave you a new "customer focus" target. To us it does not appear very user friendly, in the sense that it is quite difficult to decipher exactly what you are offering your customers. What does it mean? What difference will it make to the customers? Will they notice a difference?
  (Mr Ward) What we have done this year is we have conducted a customer survey of a sample of our customers, 5,000 customers across the country. It is the first time for many years that we have conducted such a survey. That has given us a range of feedback. We conducted the survey in relation to the life events within an appeal so those who had asked for an oral hearing, those who had a paper hearing, those who had their case struck out, those who had withdrawn their appeal, to try and understand the various stages of the process and their degree of confidence in us delivering that process. We have got that information, we are collating it. For example, overall there was only something like a 52 per cent level of overall satisfaction with the process. We start, of course, from a position where everyone who comes to deal with our service probably starts on a scale of one to 100 at minus 25 in degree of satisfaction because they are all in dispute with the state effectively. Therefore, we have to work twice as hard in order just to get ourselves on a level playing field with anyone who deals with us because they are already sensitised to this system and the length of time they take to go through the process. What we are looking to do is raise confidence in our system so that when people come to the tribunal they have confidence in the nature of the service they have received, the support they have received and, therefore, will have confidence in the quality of the professional decision that comes in. We will be looking to raise that level of customer confidence rather than satisfaction because I do not think we will ever give satisfaction to large numbers because significant numbers of our customer base go away dissatisfied with the outcome from their point of view.

  75. That leads us on nicely to the issue of complaints. In the report that this Committee did on the service it was quite critical about the way in which complaints were handled by you and about the quality of responses that you were giving to the complainants and also about the fact that they were not being heard. There was not much weight given to the complaints that were made. Can you tell us now that things are very different from what they were?
  (Mr Ward) We have reviewed our complaints procedures both administrative and judicial. They are handled differently and separately. Michael deals with all the judicial complaints, I deal with all the administrative complaints. I deal personally with all complaints that come through Members of Parliament or the Ombudsman and, therefore, have a good feel for the range of cases and the activity that we require. 1,900 complaints we had last year, a 25 per cent reduction in the number of complaints on the previous year. I would expect that to happen. We are improving the nature, the quality and the support that we are giving to individuals. Most of our complaints still come from people complaining about the delay in the process. The less delay we have in the process the less likelihood we are to attract that type of complaint and we can tackle those where there is a real breakdown in the system. We have a system of case conferences where we have a complaint that we follow through. We identify training needs. All local managers are required to report to me on the action they take in specific instances, certainly those that come from Members of Parliament because they are the ones I deal with, but locally we monitor the cases and we feedback the lessons both into training and into each site so they may act on an improved basis. That applies as much on my side as it does, I think, on the judicial side.

  76. Could you tell us how many complaints you received in the first year? How many administrative complaints and how many judicial complaints?
  (Mr Ward) Of those 1,900 cases that I was talking about there, 65 per cent of those related to administrative activity. By far the bulk of those related to delays in the process. Not all of those complaints will necessarily have been substantiated complaints because a complaint where someone writes in saying "Seven weeks is too long" in a sense might not be regarded as substantiated if the target was 14 weeks, but if they wrote in and said 15 weeks then I would regard that as one clearly where we did not provide the level of service we were seeking to provide.

  77. The Government reply to us said you would actually be looking at the way in which you treated people in ethnic minorities, to see that section of people was treated equally.
  (Mr Ward) Yes.

  78. ". . . to see if that service can be improved. This work will include a consideration of the value of collecting information on the ethnicity of appellants". Can you enlarge on what you have done in that area?
  (Mr Ward) We have not made as much progress on the specific instance that you raise about whether we are collecting information. Part of our customer survey specifically asked the question "what status are you, what is your ethnic minority status" and the replies from those, where people gave an answer to that, suggested that about six per cent of our case load were of ethnic minority. That to me would be largely understated, I would be surprised if it was not closer to 15 to 20 per cent of our case load. We have not yet collected information on the make up of ethnic minorities within our case load, partly because we have our priorities elsewhere. If 70 per cent of our case load is for people who are sick and disabled then that seems to me to imply that is where we should be trying to understand how better we can adjust and tailor our services for that group. Within that we will have exactly the same proportions of people who are from ethnic minorities as well. I have to invest over a considerable length of time in order to bring about adjustments for disabilities in particular. In house, irrespective of whether we know how many people we deal with, we have, both on the administrative and judicial sides, undertaken a major programme of awareness training in issues surrounding sex, race and disability awareness. With an external company called Ionan, who are well experienced in dealing with judicial issues surrounding interaction, inter-personnel skills with appellants, a really top class training session has been conducted for all judicial members across the process. The same with the administrative staff where we have worked with a company called Equality Foundation, again specifically to raise awareness issues, cultural issues and interpersonal handling issues surrounding the groups with whom we deal.

  79. I was pleased to read in your memorandum that you were undertaking significant improvements in training. I am a wee bit concerned about the way you are responding to me in terms of the ethnic question, the ethnicity question. You appear to be putting hard data on the back burner. Really you need that in order to look at the complaints that were referred to earlier to see whether the complaints are in proportion to the spread of the people who are coming before you.
  (Mr Ward) Yes.

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