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Home >> Publications >> Annual and Special Reports >> Annual Report 2005/2006 >> Policy Issues: Social Security and Criminal Injuries Compensation

Policy Issues: Social Security and Criminal Injuries Compensation

The Appeals Service

56. We reported last year on a meeting our Social Affairs Committee had with Dr. Christina Townsend, Chief Executive, and Sir Leonard Peach, non-Executive Director of the Appeals Service, to discuss work that Sir Leonard was undertaking on a feasibility study of decision making and appeals in social security benefits. The key objective of the study was to improve the quality of decision making and reduce the volume of social security appeals.

57. We had a follow-up meeting with Dr. Townsend and Sir Leonard Peach to discuss the key findings of his preliminary report to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the discussion included the following points:

  • the legislation underpinning the social security system is too complex and the subjective nature of benefits such as disability living allowance did not aid consistent and confident decision making;
  • customers do not understand the claim forms or the conditions of entitlement for benefits, with the result that the standards of completion of forms is poor, which leads to poor decision making;
  • there is a lack of confidence in the operation of the reconsideration process and wide variations in practices between decision makers;
  • there are considerable differences in working practices between the offices in the Disability and Carers Service, which administers benefits for sick and disabled people and their carers;
  • claims targets impose limits on the time that can be spent on some cases, which may lead to poor decision making;
  • written explanations are inadequate, with the result that some people do not have enough information to make a reasoned judgement on the further merits of their claim;
  • evidence from customers at the initial claim and reconsideration stages is not always in a format that allows decision-makers to revise the decision.

58. Many of the issues raised in Sir Leonard's first report chime closely with the findings from our users support workshops, particularly as regards the complexity of the benefits system, the need for better training for decision-makers, the lack of reasons in decisions, the difficulty in getting decision makers to reconsider decisions and the inconsistent treatment of medical evidence. Sir Leonard's report invited the Secretary of State to consider a number of recommendations:

  • the creation of a specialist grade of decision maker to be responsible for undertaking reconsiderations;
  • greater opportunities for direct contact between decision makers and customers prior to the appeal submission;
  • decision makers to have the opportunity to consider new evidence received after the release of the appeal documents to the Appeals Service and prior to the hearing;
  • pre-viewing of cases by District Chairmen in the Appeals Service to assess the quantity and quality of evidence;
  • Appeals Service judiciary to be involved in the training and accreditation of decision makers.

59. We see a great deal of merit in these recommendations which, if taken forward, would go some way to securing the much needed improvements in the quality of first tier decision making, ensuring that errors are corrected at the earliest opportunity and thereby reducing the number of cases that need to go to the Appeals Service. A second report from Sir Leonard is awaited.

How to appeal A step by step guide and The Standards You can Expect

60. The Appeals Service published two new guides aimed at the users of its services. "How to Appeal" provides a step by step users guide to the appeals process, containing comprehensive information and advice written in simple, user-friendly language, which should be easily understood by users of the tribunal. An "easy read" version of the leaflet has also been produced in association with Mencap and the Disability Rights Commission. The Appeals Service was discussing with the Department for Work and Pensions how best to get these leaflets to customers at an early stage in the appeals process.

61. "The Standards You can Expect" provides a guide to the Appeals Service's customer service standards, covering guidance on what customers should do if things go wrong, including information about other avenues of redress where a complaint cannot be dealt with fully by the Appeals Service. Again the information guide is well presented in simple user-friendly language, setting out a clear commitment to high standards of customer service.

Appeals Service Annual Report and Accounts 20042005

62. The Appeals Service's Annual Report for 200405 reported significant improvements in its service to customers, highlighting developments such as:

  • the MORI survey of appellants which provided useful feedback about appellants' needs for better information, a shorter appeals process, competent and professional staff and a flexible service;
  • the development of a blueprint for a "Modern Tribunal Venue", setting a standard for all tribunal hearings and removing existing variations across the Appeals Service estate;
  • involving appellants and representatives in the development of a new appeals leaflet in response to their request for better information.

63. We were pleased to note that waiting times for hearings have continued to fall, to an average of 10.4 weeks. However, this is not an end-to-end waiting time figure, as it only covers the time from when the Appeals Service receives the appeal papers from the decision making agency to the point of first hearing. In his 200405 report on standards of decision making by the Secretary of State, the President of the Appeals Service, His Honour Judge Harris, reported on the average times from lodgement of appeals with the decision making agencies to receipt of the papers by the Appeals Service. These waiting times ranged from 5.9 weeks for Attendance Allowance cases to 12.9 weeks for child support appeals. This means that overall end to end waiting times are at best 16.3 weeks and at worst 23.3 weeks. We, like Judge Harris, consider a waiting time of nearly 6 months unacceptable and concur with his view that work remains to be done within the agencies to improve appeals clearance times.

CAB evidence on medical assessments for incapacity and disability benefits

64. We attended the launch of a report by Citizens Advice highlighting flaws in the process and quality of medical assessments for disability and incapacity benefits and the decisions based upon them. The report included the following findings:

  • the quality of the current system of medical assessments and the quality of decision making is not acceptable and there is great scope for improvement;
  • evidence from examining doctors is too often preferred over other evidence from practitioners who are more familiar with the applicant's condition;
  • the administration and quality of medical assessments needs to be improved;
  • there is a need to improve the way medical examinations for incapacity and disability benefits are conducted and decisions made;
  • the Personal Capability Assessment does not assess mental health conditions adequately;
  • systems used to complete assessment reports are inflexible and generate standard responses;
  • a review of decision-making and appeals processes for disability and incapacity benefits is needed.

65. Again, these are issues which were raised at each of our users support workshops and which are highlighted in our feedback report (published in April 2006 and available on our website at www.council-on-tribunals.gov.uk). We will continue to monitor this matter closely at our forthcoming visits to hearings of disability and incapacity benefits appeals.

Criminal Injuries Compensation Appeals Panel

66. In his Annual Report for 200405, the Chairman of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Appeals Panel, Roger Goodier highlighted the key developments during the year, including:

  • a 12% reduction in CICAP's administration budget for 200405, which followed a 3.5% reduction in the previous year;
  • of the 3,655 decisions made by CICAP during 200405, for the second year running none was overturned by an appellate Court;
  • completion of the first formal appraisal of panel members, which led to the production of a 'Good Practice Guide';
  • the expiry of all panel members' appointments in March 2005 was resolved by the re-appointment of 94 panel members for varying periods from 15 years;
  • a decrease in sitting days from 752 days in 200304 to 695.5 in 200405 the Chairman has confirmed that, as currently administered, panels need to sit about 650 days per year to avoid an increase in arrears;
  • targets for hearings are 90% of eligibility appeals heard within 6 months of receipt of the ready to list bundle from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA); 80% of all appeals within 12 months; 100% of all appeals heard within two years, with 67%, 88% and 96% respectively actually achieved.

67. We were concerned to note that the reduction in the administration budget had led to the decision to reduce the composition of the panels from three member to two member panels. We shared the CICAP Chairman's unease that financial constraints should not be allowed to compromise the objective of hearing appeals independently. Our Chairman raised this matter with Peter Handcock, the Chief Executive of the new Tribunals Service, who explained that two person panels had only operated in about 50% of cases but that, in any event, three member panels had been re-introduced in 2005 once it became apparent that budgetary pressures were significantly less than anticipated. He also confirmed that the programme for 200607 was based on running three member panels.

Consultation Paper: Rebuilding Lives supporting victims of crime

68. A consultation paper "Rebuilding Lives supporting victims of crime" was published jointly by the Home Office, Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Attorney General, setting out the government's proposals to improve victim support and reform the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme. Our interest in the consultation lay principally in the extent to which the proposals would be likely to impact on CICAP. We had the benefit of seeing the response to the consultation submitted by the CICAP Chairman, with which we concurred.

69. Our concern about the cases which come before CICAP relates principally to the long waiting time to reach the hearing stage, most of which is spent in the gathering of evidence by the CICA. Only once the necessary evidence is collated can a case be confirmed to CICAP as ready to be listed. We strongly endorsed the case for a more effective review process within the CICA, which might lead to a greater number of cases being settled on review without the need for an appeal hearing, and for those cases which do go on to a hearing to get there more quickly.

70. We also suggested that the proposal to remove the least serious cases from the ambit of the scheme could potentially lead to a significant increase in the numbers of appeals as applicants resort to CICAP to argue the merits of their case in order to convince the appeal panel that their case is sufficiently serious to be brought within the scheme.

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