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DWP working in secret with Tribunals Service

Benefits and Work has been sent a copy of a ‘​restrict​ed’​ DWP document which reveals that the DWP have been working in secret with Her Majesty’​s Courts &​ Tribunals Service (HMCTS )to try to improve its appeals submissions and to set up a fast track service for some appeals. The document raises once again the question of just how impartial the top management of the Tribunals Service really is.

Benefits and Work received the papers from an anonymous source. They have the title ‘​Operation Appeals Update: May 2012’​ and are dated 1 June 2012. The document is marked ‘​Restrict​ed’​ on each page.

According to the document an ‘​Appeals Single Plan’​ has been introduced and is being updated fortnightly. As part of the plan ‘​The fastrack process trialled last year for certain Appeals is being reviewed with HMCTS with plans for national roll out in the autumn.’​

No indication of which appeals are being put on a fast track is given and Benefits and Work has now made a Freedom of Information request to ask for details of how the system works and which appeals are targeted.

On the face of it there is no obvious reason why some appeals should be given priority and if, for example, the appeals that are considered weakest are being fast tracked that might constitute a breach of justice if tribunal judges are aware that such distinctions are being made and could be influenced by them. There is also a big question mark over how reasonable or just it is if one party to the appeal can decide whether or not a particular case gets fast-tracked.

The document also reveals that:

‘​Revised ESA products, developed in conjunction with HMCTS, leading to a more focussed Appeal submission, [are] being rolled out during June.’​

It is not clear what these ‘​revised ESA products’​ are. But what is clear is that HMCTS are actively helping by far the most well-resourced side in the appeals process to improve its submissions whilst offering no such support to the other side. Why is no similar project being undertaken with the advice sector? Why is no such guidance being published online to help claimants write submissions? And why was the Ministry of Justice so quick to remove their video for claimants about ESA tribunals as soon as a DWP minister objected to the truth being told about appeal success rates?

(The video can still be found by typing ‘​’​Making an appeal to the Social Security and Child Support tribunal”​ into the search box on Youtube or Google)

Benefits and Work has made a Freedom of Information request to try to discover more about the one-sided help being given to the DWP.

The restricted document also tells DWP staff that mandatory revisions before appeals, which had been due to be introduced for all benefits in April 2013, will now only go ahead for personal independence payment on that date. For all other benefits it will not be introduced until October 2013. According to the document : ‘​The timescales for these changes have again slipped due to available slots in IT releases.’​

The document also gives some indication of the strain that is being placed on the DWP and its partners by the transfer of claimants from incapacity benefit to ESA.

It explains that Atos are now ‘​reducing backlogs’​ and that ‘​the current plan is to be back within agreed head of work by November although this is subject to constant review.’​ Meanwhile, ‘​DLA/AA appeals remain stable but revised processes are being planned’​ whilst the ‘​Benefits Delivery Centre work position continues to give cause for concern’​

The document reveals that the plan to introduce £​50 fines for claimants who make mistakes in their claims is disparagingly referred to as the ‘​hokey cokey’​.

Beneath the heading ‘​Civil Penalties (Otherwise known as the hokey cokey)’​ staff are told that ‘​We have now been advised that this change is back in scope for October 2012 . . . We are urgently working with the project to identify the Operational impact. Don’​t be surprised if plans change, possibly before you receive this note!’​.

In fact, we now know that the ‘​hokey cokey’​ will indeed be introduced on 1st October. From that date, claimants who make mistakes , omit information or fail to tell the DWP of a change of circumstances can be fined £​50 where such an error results in an overpayment of benefit, in addition to any overpayment being recovered.

Of course, neither the DWP or Atos are subject to a similar penalty where their errors result in an underpayment of benefit.