|Draft Pensions Appeal Tribunals (Additional Rights of Appeal) Regulations 2001 Draft Pensions Appeal Tribunals (Late Appeals) Regulations 2001
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): As the Minister said, the package seems sensible and balanced, but I should like to ask a couple of questions of fact. Although his explanation was clear, will he remind the Committee of the difference between assessment and entitlement decisions? Will he confirm that I heard correctly when he said that the new six-month limit for future appeals was in some cases shorter than that which previously applied? He was perfectly clear about that, but why is the explanatory note not? Surely it is the duty of explanatory notes to explain whether the changes tighten or extend. The explanatory note for the other regulations makes it clear that they expand the areas in which claims can be made. This is part of a long-running campaign that I have been waging to ensure that explanatory notes explain, and I should be grateful if the Minister would explain why this one did not.
Mr. Bayley: I thank the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) for their contributions. It seems to be one of those increasingly rare events when we all agree on the principle of the proposal but the detail needs to be dealt with.
The hon. Member for Beckenham asked for an assurance that the lack of appeal rights in relation to administrative decisions will not result in people being unable to appeal about matters of substance. I give her and the Committee that assurance. The sort of administrative decisions that will not be subject to appeal will be decisions such as the day of the week on which a payment is made and whether a credit to a bank account is received on Tuesday as opposed to Wednesday, or the period of payment and whether it is fortnightly rather than weekly or monthly. Such matters will not be subject to appeal, and are generally not. However, if a decision is deemed to relate administratively to the start date of an appeal, the person involved will have the right to challenge it through the appeal panel.
The hon. Lady also raised the worrying issue of the backlog and the time that it takes for appeals to be heard. I am pleased to tell the Committee that in the past year the War Pensions Agency has made substantial progress towards meeting its target for clearing appeals. The time taken was, as she said, 255 days on average. By the end of last year, we had reduced it to an average of 175a significant improvement, although, as she said, the target remains 150 days. If the regulations are adopted, we feel that it will be easier to meet such time limits.
To address a matter raised by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, the shortening of the time within which people must register an appeal will avoid situations such as a person in 2001 appealing about a decision that was made in the 1950s. It can take a long time to gather evidence that will allow the appeals panel to adjudicate on a decision made decades previously. Shortening the time limit will make it easier to gather evidence for both sides of the argument and should help to meet our target of shortening the waiting time for appeals.
We tell people who wish to challenge decisions made decades ago that there is no limit to claiming a benefit. A person may put in a new claim although, consequently, he would not have the opportunity to appeal against a decision on the start date.
The hon. Member for Beckenham asked whether six months will give people adequate time to lodge an appeal. We believe that it will. It is possible to lodge an appeal before all the evidence has been submitted. If one experienced a delay in receiving, for example, additional medical evidence, that could be submitted after the appeal had been lodged. The considerable majority of appeals are lodged within six months in any case. A person who had hitherto waited longer than that because additional evidence was awaited will be advised to lodge an appeal and submit the evidence when it becomes available.
The hon. Lady asked whether the Royal British Legion was happy with the proposals. Generally, the service charities are happy with the proposals. The Royal British Legion responded to the consultation by saying that the extension of appeal rights was a
The Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association Forces Help said that the proposals on appeals in relation to time limits and the wider range of allowances over which appeals would be made are ``helpful and constructive''. The ex-service lobby made representations about points of detail, to which I referred in my opening remarks. The regulations have been adapted to take account of such points. In general, the lobby is happy with the Government's approach.
On transitional arrangements, we recognise that people who have received a decision before the commencement of the time limit provisions may require time to get used to the new arrangements. That is why we have provided protection for decisions made before 9 April. People will be given 12 months from the date on which final assessment decisions are made in which to appeal. For example, if a decision is made on 20 March 2002, a claimant will have until 19 March 2003 to appeal. Claimants whose entitlement decisions are made before 9 April 2001 will have until 8 April 2002 to appeal. The War Pensions Agency is communicating the new rules to the people whom they affect.
The hon. Member for Beckenham asked whether service personnel would continue to sit on tribunals. It was a statutory requirement that a service person of the same gender and rank as the appellant, and who had served in the same branch or area of the armed forces, such as an infantryman or a gunner, should be a member of the tribunals.
It became increasingly difficult for the president of the pensions appeal tribunals in England and Wales, Dr. Concannon, to achieve that match, especially for some units that have now been disbanded for several years. For example, it is now hard to find someone who served as a captain in the home guard in the second world war. He asked us to examine the situation, and we have decided to remove the statutory requirement. He has, however, given an assurance that, for the foreseeable future, he would want to ensure that someone who has served in the armed forces, although not necessarily of the same rank or field of service as the appellant, will sit on appeals panels.
The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden asked why the explanatory notes did not make it clear that the regulations will make the appeal time limits shorter in some cases. I felt that they did make that clear. Indeed, we considered that issue in Committee and tried to reach a view about whether that change was appropriate. He asked me to study whether the explanatory notes should be more open about the change. I will do that, as I always want explanatory notes to do what they are intended to doto explain.
Question put and agreed to.
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