Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 66-79)




  66. Ladies and gentlemen, can we declare the public evidence session reconvened and welcome Mrs Anne Parker, who is the Independent Case Examiner for the CSA, and her colleague Elspeth Cooper. We are delighted that you are both able to join us this afternoon to assist us with the inquiry. We are particularly pleased that in addition to having access to annual reports, which are very informative in terms of the experiences you have had over the last few years since you were set up, we have also had access to your comments on the White Paper, which are very helpful and very clear. Perhaps, Mrs Parker, you would like to set out a few of your own thoughts on where we are and bring us up-to-date with your own consideration of the proposals for the White Paper and what the potential problem areas are from your own perspective?
  (Mrs Parker) Thank you very much, Chairman. My evidence is based on the experiences of the people who complain to me and it is focused on what I call the manageability of the system—will these proposals lessen or increase the number of complaints that I see, particularly the number of justifiable complaints? That is how I approach my evidence. Essentially, a number of features of the White Paper, as described by the previous contributors to this discussion, address a number of features of the previous system which led to very poor maladministration indeed. So anything that means that the system is more able to be understood by the people who are subjected to it, is less error-prone, is less likely to lead to cumulative delay, is likely to reduce the number of people who complain to me about it—it is those elements of the White Paper, as set out in my evidence, that I am saying looks to me as though they will have an impact on improving the experience of people who receive the service from the Agency under the new legislation. The other significant thing, which parts of the legislation support, are the current moves within the Agency to shift its culture from being the paper-driven, grinding exceedingly small system into one where you can have access to somebody to talk to and you can get through on the telephone. So the face-to-face components, the culture change components, are equally important.

  67. Presumably you will be concerned, because of your own perspective in all of this, that while all the White Paper proposals are at the stage of being legislated for or being brought forward, there is still some time that must be used by the CSA to try and improve on their current practice under the existing system.
  (Mrs Parker) Yes, indeed, Chairman. I think there are two elements in my response to that. First of all, I have been urging from the outset that the impending changes in legislation do not in any way hinder some of the very necessary changes which are needed for people in the system now. I continue to press that point, particularly in relation to some of the computer changes and improvements which could make significant improvements in the next two or three years, rather than just wait for the brand new system. The other way in which I think not waiting is important is because there is an opportunity during the run-up periods to address some of the issues which Members have already raised, about trying to clean up some of the cases so they do not carry forward a history of decisions which have adversely affected people who are facing the Agency. Arrears has been mentioned on a number of occasions. Linked to that, I think it will be important, and I think it is one of the specific points which I make in my evidence, to ensure both that a scheme to develop compensation for people who suffer maladministration in the new system will need to be developed, but one will also need to be preserved, which will deal with the injustices which arose in the old parts of the cases.

Mr Dismore

  68. Can I just pick up on that last point? Maladministration is something, obviously, we all experience within the CSA. I was reminded of a case by my assistant today where although theoretically the arrangements are in place now, in this particular case they applied for compensation over a year ago, the CSA have admitted that it is all their fault, yet they are still not getting paid because they are waiting for policy guidance. Is that a common problem?
  (Mrs Parker) There are different sorts of compensation. In my first annual report we identified some situations where the Agency was not able to pay compensation even though they have generated the arrears as a result of their own maladministration. That was dealt with last November, but there are still categories of delay around review and mistakes which are discovered after delay which cannot be compensated under the present scheme. I have identified these in my present annual report, and they are currently being considered by policy and ultimately, if necessary, I assume, by the Treasury.

  69. Presumably you have no indication of when that is likely to be dealt with?
  (Mrs Parker) All I can do for those cases is, when people have complained to me and I have identified what the problem is and that there is not an appropriate remedy but it seems to me that, in justice, there should an appropriate remedy, I build up what is called a list, and try to capture those people so that when and if the policy changes it gets applied.

  70. Do you envisage similar problems arising under the new scheme?
  (Mrs Parker) Certainly where I see less problems arising in the new scheme should be that the unfinished work on cases, because of the large numbers of pieces of information that have had to be collected, will diminish. It should be much simpler. So part of the reason why a fragmented service was offered was that people kept picking it up and getting a new bit of information, putting it down and then somebody else picked it up and got a new bit of information. That should happen less, so it should be less error-prone and there should be less delays arising out of that. Also, the debates that go on between the customers and the Agency about what was an impenetrable set of outcomes before, those conversations should be much more evenly controlled between the person who is on the receiving end and the person who is giving the advice. You ought to be able to have a sensible conversation. The area where I am a little less certain about how those problems will be improved was touched on, again, by the two professors, which is that the front end looks as though it is going to be much cleaner and less error-prone, energy should be able to be devoted, and the Agency is beginning to show how it can secure compliance, so getting the maintenance flow should be more feasible, more manageable. However, there is this bit in the middle, which is about the changes of circumstances and the numbers of customers and the volume of contacts. We are having, from 1 June, something called decision making and appeals (D.M.A.) changed, and testing how that works over the next two years should give one a better feel for whether that is going to be manageable or not. That is the area where I am a little uncertain at present.

Dr Naysmith

  71. What you are saying is use the period in the run-up to when they introduce the new system to clean up, I think that was the phrase you used, some of the old cases, in particular those that have been particularly troublesome. Are you suggesting that there could be a category of cases that are transferred to the new system earlier than they would have been if they had to wait until it was their turn to be introduced when the system is up running?
  (Mrs Parker) No, I do not think I know enough about the facts to be able to say that. What I am saying is that whenever cases move, however quickly or slowly it is possible to move them, it should be possible for some of them to be debugged ahead of that. I think one of the concerns was why should people go on living with the old system for a couple of years accruing arrears? Some of those arrears should have been able to be got out of the way with both the new-style approach of the Agency, its willingness to address its mistakes, and the engine of DMA which can diminish the number of people from carrying injustice forward.

Mr Swayne

  72. In your submission in paragraph 4.2[5] you welcome the ability that the Agency will have to access information in the Inland Revenue and acknowledge the frustration that the inability to do so has caused in the past. Are we being a little reticent about this? My understanding is that this suggestion would be as a last resort. If it is going to be of such value why is it not the first recourse? My second question is with respect to 4.1.[6] Can you elaborate for us the circumstances in which a penalty is "administratively coherent and workable"?
  (Mrs Parker) The source of the comment about the Inland Revenue comes from parents with care who have said to me (the balance is usually parents with care, female, non-resident parents, male, although in my complaints it is three per cent of the other sex both ways) that they are aware of the circumstances of the person when the Agency appears not to be able to be made aware of their circumstances and we quite often will see that accounts have been requested particularly from self-employed people, and then they do not come in and it is not picked up again for another couple of years and then there is a debate about which set of accounts would be the appropriate accounts to have. At one stage I was saying "Can't you ask the person concerned, the non-resident parent, for their permission to approach the Inland Revenue to get moving?" Whether in parallel with the changes that are currently going on, the efforts to ensure compliance of the self-employed and the self-employed projects, will mean—that they will get that power used, it is a minority of cases in that sense but that is really the circumstances where it would be very useful.

  73. Should it be a first resort?
  (Mrs Parker) I think the first resort is always to try to engage and obtain compliance voluntarily in any set of circumstances. The second point you raised is what would make a penalty "administratively coherent" I think was the phrase you used. I think it is a penalty that people are willing to exercise. It is a question of whether it is felt to be draconian, appropriate or otherwise and whether it is a reasonable penalty to operate and it is one that is acted upon once the threat of employing it has been made. The problem in the past has been the Agency—I made reference to the Interim Maintenance Assessment—has made threats and then not imposed and made threats and not imposed and that encourages non-compliance. I think the keys are that it feels reasonable and that it is done efficiently.

Mr Pond

  74. In your conclusions you say that the new legislation must be accompanied by amongst other things a sound information technology infrastructure and you may have heard the Minister earlier expressing her confidence that that will be in place. Do you share that confidence?
  (Mrs Parker) I do not know whether I could or I should. It is not my area of expertise, I am sorry.

  75. With those three other conditions that you mention in the conclusions there, what is the balance in your view? Are they as important as a change in the formula, the way in which the payments will be calculated or could we actually improve significantly the way in which the Agency works simply by leaving the current calculations in place but improving all these other factors?
  (Mrs Parker) You certainly could improve performance by better public information, better explanation, better training and good IT, but fundamentally it is almost impossible to explain the present system. The present system is rife with the potential for error and delay around the formula itself. I do think that is the fundamental shift and my feeling about the present system without the changes to the formula is I ask myself is it manageable when I look at some of the cases that I see. Could I do it? I am expecting these child support officers to do it, could I do it, and I am inclined to feel that it is not a manageable system.

  76. Also in your evidence you talk about shared care which is obviously a very difficult area and you express the view that in fact daytime care allowances as an idea would have been too difficult, too complex to pursue and might have led to increased complaints. Can you talk us through that a bit because without that it seems to me we could have cases of perceived injustice, and therefore complaints from people for example working shifts.
  (Mrs Parker) You certainly could have complaints about the proposed shared care arrangements. What I welcomed about the proposed shared care arrangements was that they are clear and can be explained so that the ground rules are understandable. Whether people think they are fair or not is something else and there is clearly room for some people to feel that they are less than fair. It is a) whether they are able to be explained and b) how evidence can be obtained to support the case when there is a dispute between the two partners and whether it is easier to obtain evidence around a clear set of statements. It might well be possible for somebody to come up with a clear set of statements about shared care in the day time which could also be supported by the evidence but it seems to me from the experience of the present system it is quite a difficult area to be both clear about and to obtain sound evidence to support decisions.

  Mr Pond: Thank you very much.

Mr Leigh

  77. You say in paragraph 9.1[7] that overall you support the proposals in the White Paper. "A simplified system should be a great benefit in efforts to improve the service" but of course you would say that, would you not, because you are not able to comment on policy matters, you are not able to comment on whether the system is fair or unfair to individual parents, your aim is to try and simplify the system so that fewer people complain to you, is it not?
  (Mrs Parker) I made the introduction in that way but what I mean by fewer people complaining to me is that fewer people suffer injustices which mean that they make fewer complaints to me. The present system has led to the processes of maladministration which mean that people have had extremely poor service. So in that sense I am not simply looking to reduce complaints. I am looking to reduce the cause of complaints. It did seem to me that the enormously creditable efforts in policy terms to get a system that was absolutely financially fair drove out what I call human justice, human fairness because the system could not deliver it and the second case was worse than the first.

  78. We all accept that the present system does not work and there are enormous administrative shortcomings which you are able to investigate. The problem with the new system is that there will be less administrative shortcomings because it will be so much simpler but you will not be able to investigate whether it is fair that a quarter or a third of somebody's income be taken away. That is true, is it not?
  (Mrs Parker) That is true.


  79. You made some rather diplomatic comments of criticism at page 73 of your annual report for 1998-99. You say at the top: "More disappointing has been the lack of evidence that the Agency has systemically analysed the information contained in my reports to improve performance. This is illustrated by the poor response from the Agency to some of my systemic recommendations and by the lack of monitoring of the implementation of my recommendations." You then go on in the next sentence to say that things are getting better towards the end of the year. How coded a criticism is that?
  (Mrs Parker) That was a real criticism of the performance in that year. I am happy to say that on the evidence of the six months since that year ended there has been the kind of sea change which was referred to earlier. There is undoubtedly much more energy going into engaging with the complainants, resolving complaints and moving forward systemic recommendations but I am anxious to keep the steam in the engine.

5  See Ev p 19. Back
6  See Ev p 19. Back
7  See Ev p 20. Back

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