Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 80-88)



Mr Dismore

  80. Can I just pick up the point that Edward finished on about you not being able to interfere with the percentage assessments. One of the things you have highlighted is the risk of inconsistent use of discretion. Would you see yourself when discretion is exercised (and it could go up or could go down) having the power to intervene in those cases?
  (Mrs Parker) I think the only way I could make comment there would be if I saw inconsistencies in the operation of that discretion so that perhaps one particular person was always exercising it in one way and another was exercising it in a different way. That might also relate to types of case, for example. I could certainly comment on that and draw attention to it. One of the other issues at present is where a discretion exists and the decision is made not to exercise it then I can comment on that. I can also draw to the attention of the officer who is entitled to exercise discretion new information which may not have been available to him when he made the original decision but that is stretching my ability to influence the exercise of discretion as far as it can go I think.

  81. Is the risk you outlined under the new scheme that you will have complaints made to you by people who feel that the discretion should have been exercised but was not? Do you see the risk of a large number of cases along those lines coming to you which you are not able to sift out?
  (Mrs Parker) I cannot guess, I am sorry, is the answer to that.


  82. Do you have any up-to-date information about the volume of complaints that come from Members of Parliaments' own post bags? Is that on a plane or a trend up or a trend down?
  (Mrs Parker) It is roughly the same proportion of the complaints I get. It was just under a third last year and this year and the number of complaints I am getting is going up pro rata to the number of cases that are going to the Agency. I am not getting more complaints pro rata to the customer base. That is staying the same and the proportion of MPs' cases is broadly the same.

  83. There is a sense that the sting has gone out of all this, people are no longer demonstrating in the streets and it has become less of an issue. This may just be because news editors are getting tired of the subject for all I know. Do you have a view on that? Is your perspective that there is still a real head of angry steam out there in the hands of those who believe that they are not getting proper service?
  (Mrs Parker) In terms of my post bag there is an amazing number of people who have shown considerable forbearance. There are high levels of frustration. I do not see the kind of vituperative letters that I think one might have expected to see given what one knew of the Agency some years ago when concerns were very high. I have seen very few of those, a couple. This is rather anecdotal, I do not think it is statistically valid what I am going to say now so please feel free to disregard it. I have recently seen one or two cases where I am pleased to say that people have had higher expectations of the Agency than some of the people who have complained to me in the past and they are telling them what they are ought to be doing and coming to me quickly.

  84. I have a final question and maybe Mrs Cooper could come in on this as well. I am absolutely satisfied that the two of you are equal to the task and the duties that have been laid onto you but looking forward we are going through quite a difficult transitional phase. Do you have the back-up and budget and support you think you need to discharge your duties in the coming years particularly as I already detect from my colleagues that there is a concern about the transition period and the complaints that might flow from that?
  (Mrs Parker) Yes. In terms of the resources available to us, we are regularly—and we are going through a second phase—looking at how we can redeploy them to produce better service, because our service has slowed down. It should not have done, it is causing some delays, and I am sure another Select Committee will be asking me questions about that. However, I have not felt the need to ask for additional resources. I think we can manage that better at this point. In terms of the volume of complaints that might come to us during the transition period, I would anticipate that a number of those—going back to Mr Leigh's comments—will be about the fairness or unfairness of the legislation, and I regret that I may be turning those back to Parliamentarians or others. So it is quite difficult at this point. In principle, the Agency is supposed to give me the resources I need, and if I discover I need them I will ask for them.

  85. We have your assurance on that?
  (Mrs Parker) Yes. Elspeth, you have to manage them, if you want to say anything.
  (Mrs Cooper) I just agree with what Mrs Parker says. We have recently recruited more staff. I am looking at the management—I am new to the unit, I only arrived in June—and looking at our processes, trying to maximise our efficiencies, but at the moment I have the resources to deal with the work that I have at present and for the backlog that I have. I am quite confident that I will be given the resources that I need.

  86. I was aware—and I do not want to impinge on the territory of the Public Administration Select Committee—that there was a slight increase in the delay in some of the responses.
  (Mrs Parker) Yes, there is, indeed.

  87. That is a matter more for them than us, but I just wanted to be clear that you were both absolutely certain that should a need for resources be identified you would not be backward in coming forward, as they say.
  (Mrs Parker) No.

  88. Thank you. We are very grateful to you. That has been extremely valuable. Thank you very much for your attendance.
  (Mrs Parker) Thank you.

  Chairman: I suspend the public session temporarily.

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