In 2007-08, £646 million was paid in respect of Disability Living Allowance (DLA). Decisions on entitlement to the benefit are made by the Social Security Agency (the Agency). Each year the Agency is asked to reconsider some 8,000 of its decisions and customers make a formal appeal in more than 7,000 cases.
Today’s report by John Dowdall, Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, focuses on the reconsideration and appeals process which costs in excess of £4 million a year. The report follows-up on issues raised in a previous Audit Office report on Decision-making and Disability Living Allowance in June 2005.
- Overall, the report found that significant progress had been made to improve the DLA reconsideration and appeals process. The report records that the number of decisions overturned at appeal, due to Agency error, has been very low and indeed was zero in 2006-07, the last year for which figures are available. It also notes reductions in the time taken between registering an appeal and taking it to first hearing – in 2007-08 the actual average clearance time was 10.3 weeks compared with 16.2 weeks in 2005-06.
- The review recognises that the DLA reconsideration and appeals process is complex with factors outside the Agency’s and DSD’s control impacting on the length of time it takes to process an appeal. The report records that, over the period 2004-05 to 2007-08, the Agency broadly met its targets with the Department’s Appeals Service meeting its targets for the first time in 2007-08 (Figures 8 and 9 on page 33). The report found however, a wide variation in the actual time taken for appeals to progress through the system (Figure 11 on page 34).
- There is still no overall measure in place to assess how long it takes to process an appeal from its receipt through to the final decision being issued. This is despite a recommendation from the Audit Office to do so in its 2005 report. The current report considers that the introduction of an end-to-end target would bring benefits for the appeal bodies; it would contribute to joined-up working to deliver an improved service and reduce the uncertainty, anxiety and stress caused by the length of the process.
- The report also found that there is scope for improved communication and collaboration between the bodies involved. The President of Appeal Tribunals believes that the Department should be advising his office as soon as an appeal is made. The report notes that the President and Department are discussing what arrangements can be put in place to address the President’s specific requirement.
- The Audit Office also found that both the Department and President each collect feedback from appellants on their experience of the appeals process. This is not always shared. The report encourages both parties to consider designing a survey to collect feedback on the end-to-end appeals process as this will reduce duplication of effort and help identify appellants’ perceptions of their full experience. However, both the Department and President consider that a co-ordinated approach could compromise the independence of the appeal tribunal.
- The attendance of a Presenting Officer (an Agency official) at a tribunal is intended to assist the tribunal panel to assess the facts and law, particularly in complex cases. However, their attendance has fluctuated over time and has fallen from a high of 48 per cent in 2004-05 to 32 per cent in 2007-08. The President of Appeal Tribunals advocates 100 per cent attendance while the Agency considers that attendance should be limited to complex cases. The report records that there is clearly a need for the Agency and the President to consider how to optimise the level of attendance.