The report, entitled The Administration and Management of the Disability Living Allowance Reconsideration and Appeals Process, looked at how the application and appeals process for DLA operated.
Paul Maskey, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee said: "There are a number of issues that must be resolved in the awarding of DLA. The report showed that the rules governing DLA awards are complex and that decisions on entitlement involve a high degree of judgment and interpretation. The appeals process is itself an important mechanism which allows applicants to challenge decisions they are unhappy with. While the Committee is encouraged that average times for an appeal to be decided have come down from 31 to 22 weeks since publication of the Audit Office report, further improvements are desirable.
"One of the concerns highlighted in the Report is the need for everyone involved in the appeals process the Department for Social Development, the Courts and Tribunals Service and the President of Appeal Tribunals to work together in a constructive partnership. Contentious issues, such as the attendance of Social Security Agency officials at tribunals, need to be resolved by all bodies involved to focus on the needs of those challenging decisions."
The Committee also found that the quality of the initial decisions made by the Agency was very good. However, the Report showed that an increasing number of decisions were overturned on appeal, mainly due to additional medical evidence which had not been available to the Agency at the time of the original decision.
Paul Maskey said: "We believe that the Agency must continue to look at ways to reduce the complexity of the application process and improve the evidence available to its staff when making decisions. This should help ensure the right decisions are made in the first instance and the number of appeals reduced.
"Decisions over DLA are of course complex and stressful for all involved. It is important that the process works as smoothly as possible.
1. The Department for Social Development (the Department) is responsible for administering Disability Living Allowance (DLA) through the Social Security Agency (the Agency). The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service manages administrative support to the independent appeal tribunals. The President of Appeal Tribunals is responsible for the judicial functions of appeal tribunals.
2. At March 2010, 181,897 people in Northern Ireland were in receipt of DLA. The total amount paid in the last financial year was £729 million.
3. In 2009-2010 the Social Security Agency made 59,065 DLA decisions. In the same period the Agency received 6,337 DLA appeals.
4. The Report concluded that the Department accepted the need for end-to-end targets for the appeals process which would drive further improvements in the time taken to complete appeals and would also provide applicants with information on the length of time the appeal process would take.