Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60
WEDNESDAY 25 APRIL 2001
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.
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 yearusing
money from the invest to save budget which the Chancellor holdsvideo
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
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
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 sufficientyetblack 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
(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.
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
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.