I have previously expressed, and I reiterate today, my regret that unacceptable delays have occurred in the processing of claims for disability living allowance and that, as a result, many disabled customers were not receiving a standard of service to which they are entitled.
The chief executive of the Benefits Agency wrote to all hon. Members on 19 October outlining the positive actions that the agency has taken to remedy the position. Substantial progress has been made and the chief executive of the agency tells me that it is now within sight of achieving a stable state of work outstanding.
I intend to have further discussions with the chief executive to see what lessons should be learnt from the experience, which has led to considerable distress for many disabled customers and their families.
Does the Minister accept that, in common with Opposition Members, he should be appalled that, after drafting in the necessary resources—a move which, presumably, has merely displaced the problems and moved them to elsewhere in the benefits system—250,000 claimants of disability living allowance and attendance allowance were still awaiting payment at the end of September? Does he agree he should also be appalled that, according to statistics for the end of August, only 25 per cent. of disability living allowance claims were turned around in 60 days and only 3 per cent. of attendance allowance claims were turned around in 35 days? When will the Benefits Agency achieve the targets of a 60 per cent. turnaround in 30 days for disability living allowance and a 60 per cent. turnaround in 35 days for attendance allowance?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his encouraging reply on a difficult issue. Is he aware that my constituents have been disappointed in the delays involved in processing cases? Will he confirm that all DLA payments will be backdated, no one will lose out because of delay and all claimants will ultimately obtain their money?
I have acknowledged on more than one occasion how disappointed I was with some of the delays that occurred in the early days of the introduction of DLA and other benefits associated with it, but the agency is now clearing twice as many claims as it was in June and many times the number of claims that it was clearing in February and March. I am confident that it is within sight of meeting its targets.
Does the Minister accept that thousands of people are being denied their statutory rights? Can he ensure that if ever this sort of thing happens again there will be some mechanism to make certain that people get the money to which they are entitled, and that they can argue afterwards if it is the Government's machinery which is holding them back from their entitlement?
Nobody will be denied his statutory rights. If a claim is allowed, albeit delayed, it will be backdated to the date of the claim. That reassures all who have been waiting for their claims to be settled—admittedly for too long—that they will receive their money.
It is worth comparing the introduction of DLA, about which we hear so much criticism from the Opposition, with the introduction of the mobility allowance which, in the first year, was limited to 5,000 recipients and by the fourth year was reaching just 95,000. We have delivered this benefit to 250,000 people within seven months.
The Minister will recall making similar statements last April, May, June and July, when he said that progress was being made. I am sure that the whole House will agree with me when I compliment the staff on the way in which they are dealing with an intolerable burden.
When a decision is made to refuse disability living allowance it takes between eight and 12 weeks for that decision to be issued and it can take another six months before an appeal is heard. So it may be 18 months after applying before the money is paid after a successful appeal. Does not the Minister think that disgraceful?
I can well understand that the agency has been concentrating on dealing with initial claims. It will turn its attention to reviews of decisions and appeals now that it is in prospect of achieving its targets for new claims.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the large increase in the number of new staff—800 of them —dealing with disability living allowance is a clear sign of the Government's commitment to improving the system? Does he also accept that constituents of mine have been suffering from delays in the allocation of disability living allowance, and that other constituents who work in the system believe that, while great progress has been made, more could be done to train telephone answerers?
There was a time, I believe, when misunderstandings arose during the use of the inquiry line, but I believe that successful efforts have been made to resolve that problem, and it should not be recurring now. We should recognise that, in part at least, DLA has suffered from its own success. Our efforts and those of the many organisations of and for disabled people which helped in the launch of the allownace led to a tremendous surge of claims in the early days. That caused a problem in the administration of the Benefits Agency, but I am confident that it is tackling the problem and that success is in immediate prospect.
Is the Minister aware that his remarks will give small comfort to thousands of disabled people, many of whom will have to wait until after Christmas to have their claims dealt with? Does he not realise that many of the staff at benefit offices are appalled by the failure to provide an efficient service? They think that it is due to the continued lack of permanent, full-time trained staff. Does the Minister realise the hardship and distress that he is causing by his incompetence?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities—no doubt we shall regularly cross swords. I ask her to acknowledge that the Government were right —most fair-minded people recognise that we were—to go ahead with launching DLA at a stroke rather than adopting the tentative approach of the Labour Government when they introduced the mobility allowance.
The hon. Lady should also bear it in mind that, for the first time in this area, we are relying not on medical examination but overwhelmingly on self-assessment by disabled people of the effect of disability on their lives. That has been a notable success. Some 80 per cent. of cases are now being decided without the need for medical examination. The Government are to he congratulated on that, not criticised.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the setting up of a special telephone hot line specifically for hon. Members to bring to the attention of DLA offices cases of urgent need among their constituents. Will the Minister join me in condemning the irresponsible action of some Labour Members who have distributed that telephone number willy nilly to the severe detriment of genuine cases of urgent need?
There have been some examples of that sort, but, to be fair, they were fairly limited and not many people went down that route. I deplore the fact that some did because they could have set a pattern that might have been followed elsewhere. The establishment of a hot line for hon. Members should be seen against the background of a considerable number of additional lines and operators for the general public. The combination of those two initiatives has been a significant advance in advising people about the state of their claims.