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Pensions Appeal Tribunals (Additional Rights Of Appeal) Regulations 2001

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2001

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8.40 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th February be approved [8th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I have a long speech and a short speech. I shall read out the short speech and mention any points in the long speech if your Lordships wish. I shall speak to the two sets of regulations.

The regulations resulted from the Act passed last summer. As your Lordships will remember, the regulations concern appeals, not claims which remain unaffected. At the moment decisions can be appealed decades after they were made. A decision can be made in the 1950s and someone may appeal against it 40 years later. I believe that your Lordships agreed that it was absurd to have such a long potential period of time between the original claim and its contest and appeal. That is clearly not sensible. In future people will have to appeal against a decision closer to the time it was made so that the circumstances can be fully considered and one is not trying to second-guess decisions that were made 20 or 30 years ago in a very different medical climate.

The extension of appeal rights is intended to provide a clearer, more cohesive and consistent approach to decision-making by giving more war pensioners the opportunity to settle their dispute in a fair, just, impartial manner. A six-month appeal time limit—claims, however, can be made at any time—will ensure that appeals are prepared and heard closer to the time the decisions are made.

The regulations that are before the House set out the finer detail of the extent of those new rights for war pensioners and the grounds under which an appeal may be heard if it is received outside the new time limits. The proposals were taken forward working with the ex-service organisations and in consultation with the president of the Pensions Appeals Tribunal. The majority of our proposals have been welcomed by the war pensions community.

The changes are, of course, being communicated appropriately and widely. For example, we have provided that those war pensioners who received appealable decisions before the new arrangements come into effect on 9th April will have a longer 12 month lead-in period in which to appeal. The War Pensions Agency intends to send notifications to a number of war disablement pensioners and war widows whose decisions were made in the recent past to inform them of the transitional arrangements.

The regulations include, first, late appeals. The draft late appeals regulations before us today provide that a tribunal may prescribe the circumstance and allow an appeal to be brought no later than 12 months after the expiry of the uniform statutory appeal time limit. We provided a generous six month appeal time limit in preference to the one month time limit which appears elsewhere in social security. We have also provided in the regulations some transitional protection to decisions made before the new time limit is commenced next month. Except for those interim decisions that are subject to a three month time limit, claimants who receive a decision before 9th April this year will have a full year from the date of the notification in which to bring an appeal.

Regulation 4 of the late appeals regulations prescribes the situations under which a late appeal may be accepted by tribunals where the claimant was not able to bring the appeal within the time limit but the appeal was none the less brought as soon as was reasonable and practical in the circumstances. For example, the delay could be due to death, a postal strike or exceptional circumstances. Essentially these provisions replace the previous reasonable excuse provisions.

Secondly, we come to the additional rights of appeal. These are intended to provide war pensioners with a right of appeal to the independent tribunals against the majority of war pensions decisions and includes for the first time something which has been widely welcomed; that is, most decisions on the supplementary allowances, which are the major source in some cases of the pension that is paid in addition to the basic war pension. The Government intend that they will be effective for all decisions notified on or after 9th April this year. It is intended that appeals rights will usually extend to war pensions where a decision has been made that refuses or stops an award; sets or changes the amount of an award or sets or varies the date from which the award has effect.

I believe that these regulations are balanced and generous. They have been drawn up in consultation with the organisations concerned. They have been out to extensive consultation with 17 or 18 different organisations. They do not all entirely agree on every point. However, I hope that with those assurances and given the fact that the regulations are benign in intent and are sensible and that we discussed the policy implications last summer your Lordships will feel able to accept the regulations tonight.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th February be approved—[ 8th Report from the Joint Committee].—( Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

My Lords, we are grateful for that explanation. I speak totally out of order but on the previous debate I believe that the noble Baroness did not respond to some points on the PAC. I hope that she will reply in writing. However, we very much welcome the regulations that we are discussing. One point arises with regard to waiting times for decisions which I believe can best be addressed as regards the following regulations on which I hope to speak briefly.

My Lords, I thought that I was speaking to both sets of regulations. However, I shall move the second set of regulations formally.

My Lords, if the noble Baroness spoke to both sets of regulations I raise the question of the impact of the first set of regulations on the second set in as much as I gather that the delays at the moment are considerable although officials aim to reduce the waiting time to 14 weeks. I understand that in 1999–2000 the pensions appeal tribunals reported an average waiting time of 83.5 weeks. That seems a most extraordinary figure; it may be a misprint, in which case the noble Baroness will correct me. What is the current waiting time? I believe that at present it is about 50 weeks.

My Lords, the latest information I have indicates that it is about a year. We are trying to bring that down for all appeals tribunals.

On Question, Motion agreed to.