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Protecting the most vulnerable – Mulholland

March 10, 2013 2:26 PM
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Greg Mulholland MPOn Saturday the Liberal Democrat Conference passed Justice in Social Security Tribunals, which notes the important role Social Security Tribunals play in ensuring the welfare system works fairly.

Commenting, Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Work and Pensions, Greg Mulholland said:

"Liberal Democrats are committed to creating a fairer society. We want to ensure that those people who need help through the benefit system receive proper support and, if things go wrong, have access to justice.

"That is why Liberal Democrats in Government have been fighting hard to ensure that the Government accepted the recommendations of the independent review of Employment and Support Allowance. These changes are already meaning that more disability benefit decisions are being got right first time.

"There is of course more to do, and we also need to make sure that the difficult decisions we are taking to cut the deficit, including changes to legal aid, do not have an adverse effect on disabled people. It is vital the Government continues to monitor these changes and to protect vulnerable people."

The full text of the motion, as passed by Conference, is below:

Justice in Social Security Tribunals - Passed

Conference confirms the commitment of Liberal Democrats to a society where justice is available for all, regardless of circumstance; where people are able to redress injustice; and to take part in decisions which affect their lives.

Conference notes the important role of appeal rights at Social Security Tribunals in ensuring that the benefits system works fairly, and individuals have the right to expert assistance, locally provided to help them obtain redress for decisions taken about them which they have reason to believe do not conform to the legislation.

Conference further notes:

  1. The commencement of the Welfare Reform Act in April 2013 could potentially see many more appeals as all claimants will have to be reassessed against new entitlement rules, and case law will need to be established for cases where legislation needs clarification.

  2. That under recent legal aid reforms, advice will no longer be available for the purpose of challenging decisions in Social Security Tribunals.

  3. That a concession secured by Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians (during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act) that more complex cases in first tier Social Security Tribunals should receive legal aid funding, has not been delivered on.

  4. There is a high level of error by welfare benefit decision-makers as evidenced for example by around half of ESA appeals being found in claimants' favour, and that tribunal outcomes tend to be more favourable where appellants have access to independent specialist support in preparing their appeals, with appeals cases in legal aid funded Social Security cases having positive outcomes in 89% of cases.

  5. That previous Conference motions on welfare reform have expressed concerns about the impact of changes in the benefit system on vulnerable and disabled people and have stressed the importance of keeping decision-making under review, and of claimants having access to support for challenging decisions where necessary.

Conference believes that:

a) Every effort should be taken to ensure that welfare benefit decisions are 'right first time' thus reducing the demand on the tribunal system.

b) Where appeals do go to tribunal, it is in the interests of justice that appellants should receive some assistance, especially in more complex cases.

Conference therefore recommends that:

  1. Appropriate adjustments should be made to legal aid criteria to ensure that where tribunal proceedings involve points of law or complex evidential problems, appellants can access an appropriate level of advice and support.

  2. That the provision of welfare rights advice be kept under review, and that measures should be taken to additionally strengthen the capacity of advice services especially in periods of substantial change to the welfare system.

  3. Ministers should report on what positive steps are being taken to improve the quality of decision making by the Department of Work and Pensions and its contractors and agencies.

  4. Social Security Tribunals should stay free at the point of use and not incur fees for users.