Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted on behalf of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (CS 29)


  1.  The role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman) is, and has been since his office was created in 1967, to investigate and report on complaints referred to him by Members of Parliament from members of the public that maladministration on the part of bodies within the Ombudsman's jurisdiction has caused them unremedied injustice.

  2.  The complaints the Ombudsman considers are those which are about the way that departments have administered their responsibilities. He does not consider complaints about the content of legislation, that being for Parliament itself to decide. Nor does he investigate the merits of particular policies. Policy is a discretionary matter. The legislation under which the Ombudsman operates, the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, says that he is not to question the merits of discretionary decisions taken in the absence of maladministration. (Where the Ombudsman finds maladministration tainting the taking of a discretionary decision his normal practice is to invite the Department concerned to take the decision afresh, without such maladministration.)

  3.  Following the enactment of the Child Support Act 1991 and the setting up of the Child Support Agency in April 1993 the then Ombudsman, from September 1993 onwards, began to receive increasing numbers of complaints referred to him through Members of Parliament alleging maladministration on the part of the Child Support Agency.

  4.  The numbers of complaints referred continued to grow; and by the end of 1994, of the many public sector bodies within the Ombudsman's jurisdiction, it was the Agency against whom complaints of maladministration were being made most frequently. Because of the increases in the numbers of complaints from parents with care and non-resident parents alike, the then Ombudsman took the unusual step of writing to all Members of Parliament asking them not to refer further Child Support Agency cases to him unless the cases themselves possessed or appeared to possess novel features, or the complainants were alleging that the Agency's shortcomings were causing them some unremedied financial loss. Even so, by the end of 1994 complaints against the Child Support Agency made up over one-third of the total of all complaints against all departments being referred to the Ombudsman.

  5.  As well as making reports on the individual cases to those Members of Parliament who had referred constituents' complaints to him the Ombudsman used his powers under section 10(4) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 to lay two special reports before Parliament, in January 1995 and again in March 1996, summarising what his investigations into individual complaints against the Child Support Agency had found. Full details can be obtained from the reports themselves. In summary, in his first special report the Ombudsman gave examples, including examples of mistaken identity, inadequate procedures, failures to answer correspondence, misleading or inadequate advice and delays in assessing and reviewing cases and in making payments to parents with care, to illustrate the shortcomings his investigations were finding. In the second special report he regretfully confirmed that those shortcomings were continuing to occur and went on to illustrate others - confusion over jurisdiction, breaches of confidentiality, problems with interim maintenance assessments and failures to take enforcement action promptly - that had also emerged. His particular concern at the problems those who had had dealings with the Agency were having in obtaining redress from the Agency, even when shortcomings had been admitted, led him to continue to urge the Agency themselves to consider appointing an independent complaints adjudicator, a suggestion he had first made in May 1995.

  6.  Since Mrs Parker, the independent case examiner, took up her post in April 1997 the number of complaints against the Agency being referred to the Ombudsman has started to fall back. The Ombudsman has not felt it necessary to lay a third special report before Parliament. Even so, in each of his last three annual reports to Parliament, the latest of which was published in July 1999, he has continued to criticise aspects of the Child Support Agency's performance. The shortcomings his individual investigations continue to find mirror both the shortcomings being reported by the independent case examiner and those he has reported on in earlier years. The Ombudsman has felt able to say that some of the adverse themes reported on in the past have been less prominent in the past year: also, he has welcomed steps the Child Support Agency are taking to improve their handling of complaints and their greater readiness than in the past to offer compensation for errors. However, the Ombudsman's individual investigations show that the Child Support Agency continue to exhibit significant shortcomings.


  7.  For the reasons identified in paragraph 2 above the Ombudsman has no official view on the policy points addressed in the White Paper. His concern is that whichever policies are adopted should be capable of being administered fairly and effectively. Also, lessons need to be learned from the mistakes of the past. Unless adequate resources, both staff resources and other resources (IT resources in particular), are provided to administer the policies which are adopted then, however well—intentioned those policies and whatever the theoretical advantages they might bring, there will continue to be problems. Simplifying the system should make its administration more straightforward but, even with a simplified system, unless there are enough staff and the staff have the necessary support facilities, training and instruction or guidance, and the time in which to absorb that training or guidance, the problems which have characterised the Child Support Agency's first six years will continue.

  8.  There is one other point. Almost uniquely for a government agency, staff at the Child Support Agency find themselves dealing with matters which affect not just the client's position vis a vis themselves but also the client's position vis a vis a third party (the "other" parent), with whom the client may be at loggerheads. That increases the likelihood of complaints about the Agency since they will not be able to satisfy both parents in every case. Some of those complaints will be justified, some will not be justified. It will remain important that the Child Support Agency maintains good complaints handling arrangements of its own to distinguish into which category complaints about its handling of cases fall and, in the case of those complaints which are justified, that they offer speedy and appropriate redress.

Office of the Parliamentary
Commissioner for Administration

September 1999

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 15 October 1999