Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 20 of Session 2003-04, dated 18 May 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that former servicemen and women applying for the first time for a war disablement pension have to wait for over four months for their claim to be processed, and that the MOD and the Agency must tackle the current delays.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 20th Report of this Session, which examined the Veterans Agency's progress in improving its service delivery, in particular its performance in dealing with war pensions claims, what it is doing to modernise and improve the efficiency of its processes, and how it reaches veterans who may be entitled to use its services. The Veterans Agency, an Executive Agency of the Ministry of Defence, is responsible for administering the War Pensions Scheme. The number of claims received by the Agency has decreased and is expected to fall further. In 1992-93 the Agency received 202,828 claims but by 2001-02 this had fallen to 48,950, split equally between claims for war pensions and allowances. The number of beneficiaries of the Scheme, however, at around 271,000, is similar to what it was ten years ago, and total expenditure on awards has risen from £840 million in 1992-93 to £1,200 million annually.

The Committee found that the Agency has estimated that the potential population of veterans and dependants is between four and five million, yet it has little idea of how many might reasonably be eligible for a pension or an award. While many ex-servicemen and women will have completed military careers without incident, and will have no call upon the Agency's services, there may be others in need of help. The Agency needs to define better the target population within the wider body of ex-servicemen and women as a starting point to assess how many other potential beneficiaries there may be, in addition to the 271,000 already in receipt of assistance.

The Agency should collate and analyse information about the composition of existing client and claimant groups to establish how representative they are of the wider population of ex-service personnel in order to identify gaps in its promotional activities and take steps to raise the profile of its services among those who may otherwise remain unaware.

Despite considerable efforts to raise awareness of its services, the Agency is unlikely to reach veterans who have not kept in touch with the ex-service community. Much of the agency's promotional activity is channelled through ex-service organisations. The Agency needs to devise new and complementary strategies, for example, undertaking surveys of pensioners in general.

It took the Agency an average of 131 days in 2001-02 to clear a first claim for a war disablement pension. Currently there is little incentive for the Agency to improve its performance in processing first claims for a war disablement pension, because it is set a single target for clearing all types of claim-whether complicated or straightforward-which it has easily achieved in recent years. The Ministry and the Agency should agree much more specific and demanding targets, particularly for first claims, to drive down lengthy waiting times for claimants.

Now that the Ministry of Defence has responsibility for the Agency it should improve communication and routinely provide service records within the agreed turnaround time. The Agency has an agreement with the Ministry that service records will be provided in 20 working days and yet in 2001-02 over one quarter of records were not received after 25 working days. The Agency and the Ministry of Defence should identify the causes of the present delays, tackle any persistent hold-ups or bottlenecks, and take action to speed up the process generally so that agreed targets for the supply of service records are met.

The Agency also needs to focus on those hospitals which consistently fail to meet the ten day turnaround target agreed with the Department of Health for the provision of medical records from the National Health Service. As soon as the technology is available, the Agency should exploit the benefits offered by use of NHS Net to reduce waiting times generally for medical records, and reduce administrative costs in turn.

Despite a recommendation by this Committee in 1993, the Agency still does not monitor the cost of processing a claim and is therefore not in a position to identify where improvements in efficiency are needed and how it can deploy better its resources in dealing with different types of claims. And the Agency should take steps to benchmark the efficiency and performance of its call centre, taking account of our Report, Better public services through call centres. The Agency's helpline handled 418,284 calls from existing and potential claimants in 2001 yet over 11% of these were lost calls.

In the light of the long and distinguished service given by the Brigade of Gurkhas to the British Armed Forces, we urge the Agency and the Ministry of Defence to resolve promptly the uncertainty regarding eligibility of Gurkhas under the War Pensions Scheme. It is now seven years since the move of the Brigade from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom and yet it has still not been clarified as to how this move affects their eligibility under the Scheme.

Mr Leigh said today:

"Even though the Veterans Agency meets it overall targets for processing all claims, former servicemen and women applying for the first time for a war disablement pension have to wait for over four months on average for their claims to be dealt with. The MOD and the Agency must agree much tougher targets and tackle the current delays, including those in obtaining medical and service records.

I am also concerned that there may be some veterans who may be in need of help but not know they are eligible for awards under the War Pensions Scheme. The Agency needs to find ways of raising awareness amongst those who it cannot reach through ex-service organisations."

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