As we move to benefits being delivered by the Pensions Service
and Job Centre Plus, some things don’t seem to change. The quality
of decision-making may eventually improve when social security
staff become familiar with the new methods of working but until
then, many claimants have to rely on the appeals system to get the
benefits they need.
To make a bad situation worse, the appeals system is also in a
bit of a mess.
Recently, welfare rights workers were able to obtain details of
the average waiting times and clearance figures for the appeals
service and office of social security commissioners – and they
don’t make pleasant reading.
The average waiting time for appeals, from receipt by the
appeals service (TAS) to final determination was more than 13 weeks
in the past year. For appeals heard in some parts of the country,
the picture is even worse. Cases administered by the Birmingham TAS
office are taking almost 15 weeks, which is actually one week
better than Nottingham TAS. The situation is more desperate even
than it appears, however, as TAS only start counting from the date
that they receive the papers passed to them by the local social
security office. The appeal may have sat in that office for a
further four to 8 weeks while the decision is looked at again,
documents are gathered together, and so on.
Even when cases go as far as a social security commissioner, and
are then returned for a fresh appeal, delays are common. Bearing in
mind that it can take 12 to 18 months to get a case heard by a
commissioner, a further delay of, on average, 15 weeks just adds
insult to injury.
As with any set of averages, the figures hide some truly
atrocious detail. As of 30 April 2002, for example, there were
8,626 cases nationally that were outstanding longer than 24
TAS can’t even say that it is facing an unexpected deluge of
appeals. For example, it expected to receive anything between
11,000 and 30,000 housing benefit appeals last year as these were
brought into the TAS remit for the first time. However, up to the
end of March only around 6,000 HB or council tax benefit appeals
had been received. The suspicion is that HB departments were
sitting on appeals. HB appeals were on average taking 30 weeks to
clear, of which 22 weeks was taken up by the council preparing
their submissions. In London, it has been hard to get HB appeals
heard at all because of an alleged shortage of tribunal members who
know enough about housing benefit.
So will it get any better? Well, TAS are very hopeful that its
modernising appeal programme will help reduce some of the delays
when introduced later this year. MAP is a new IT system that has
cost £22m to develop. Essentially TAS is trying to link
together all the first-tier decision-makers at social security, the
commissioners office and welfare rights organisations, and so on.
Submissions, hearing dates and correspondence can then all be done
on-line. This may also put an end to the three-to-four month waits
for an appeal, only to find that TAS have listed it on a day that
you said you couldn’t do! This means a request for an adjournment
and yet more delays, of course.
Of course, cutting down the need for appeals by improving the
quality of decision-making in the first place would be a better
Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire
Council. He is unable to answer queries in person, either by post
or by telephone. If you have a question to be answered in Welfare
Rights, please write to him c/o Community