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