Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 89-99)




  89. Can I reconvene the public session of evidence and welcome Mr John Avery, who is the Deputy Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and has been such for a number of years—a distinguished career of service and, no doubt, he has seen quite a lot pass under his nose in one way or the other. Indeed, you had a distinguished career before that, I think, in the Board of Trade, or some other branch of executive government, so you are very welcome and we are grateful to you for coming along. We have had the benefit of your memorandum on the Child Support Agency and I just wanted to ask you, really, by way of setting the scene and opening the questioning, from the depth and extent of your experience, what role do you think the Ombudsman can play in certifying that the new system is working? You will have, perhaps, detected from some of my colleagues a worry about the interface between the old and the new, and indeed a lot of the statistics that are available to policy makers and ministers take sometime to come through and become robust to identify a trend. How long will it take before the new system can be certified, if you like, as being working to the extent that it can take on the existing caseload? You have seen all sorts of sights, many and varied, in your past experience and in your present position. Do you have a view on that? What can you tell us to look out for? What would the test be that you would set for the new system to pass before you could be confident it could deal with existing cases?
  (Mr Avery) The role the Ombudsman can play, Chairman, I think, will be determined by the role that Members of this House ask him to play, because we simply pick up the complaints which Members of the House refer to the Ombudsman. However, to pick up your particular point about the transitional arrangements, could I just jog back in my memory to another transitional circumstance which involved the Department of Social Security, and that was a year before the Child Support Agency came into existence. That was the time when the old allowances of Attendance Allowance and Mobility Allowance were replaced by the Disability Living Allowance. I have to say that the Department at the time did not handle those transitional changes particularly well, as some here may remember, because the Ombudsman of the day felt obliged to make a special report to Parliament on that particular subject, which in fact he referred to when the Child Support Agency came into existence, saying that insufficient time had been given for staff in the Department to operate two systems concurrently, and that part and parcel of the problem was that the then DSS—which was really just when agencies were being set up—took their best people off the old arrangements and put them on to the new arrangements because they were concerned about the way the new arrangements were going to work. Frankly, that meant that for a period of nearly two years the old arrangements went into even greater disarray. One of the concerns I think the Ombudsman would have is that if the CSA are not given the resources and, as well as the resources, the time to make the transitional changes, then the transitional period could actually turn out to be one of the more difficult ones and one would see, temporarily no doubt, a deterioration in performance, whereas I think the CSA's performance in this last twelve months—and I would agree with what Mrs Parker was saying there—has shown some signs of an upturn.

Mr Pond

  90. Can I take that point a bit further, because the Minister, earlier, was—while taking on board many of these points about transition—saying she was fearful of a big bang approach because of the possibility of a complete meltdown of the system, and no amount of WD40 from yourself or other agencies could unfreeze it. Is there a way through on this? Can you see a way of achieving that transition from one system to another without the possibility of meltdown, on the one hand, or the possibility of trying to run two systems rather ineffectively side-by-side on the other?
  (Mr Avery) I listened to all the earlier evidence given this afternoon with interest, and it seemed to me that there will be—and this sounds a bit like a sibyl making predictions—complaints. The issue is for those of you who determine the legislation; what the new arrangements are and which complaints you are happier to face and which you think you can most effectively deal with afterwards. I agree completely that if you run the two systems side-by-side you will get some of your constituents coming along and saying "There is unfairness here because I came along two months later and is my situation is so different". On the other hand, if you try and compress the system then (and perhaps "meltdown" is a bit too dramatic) there is likely to be a stepchange in the number of complaints. I am afraid that with this, as with so many of the issues with which the White Paper details, there is not an easy answer; there is a trade-off and a series of judgments to be made. Simplicity has been one of the keynote features in the evidence given earlier this afternoon, and certainly the Ombudsman would not dispute that unless there is simplification of the system then all the problems that have been experienced in the past will continue. The weighing that has to be done is that the further down the path of simplicity you go the more you move from the concept of absolute fairness. I fear, certainly judged on the experience of the cases we have investigated over the past 7 or 8 years, that is a trade-off which has to be made.

  91. I think you did mention the phrase "sufficient resources" a few moments ago. Is it part of the solution, as you see it, that if there were adequate resources given to the Agency (and I assume from what you said that you think there should be a considerable increase in resources) it might be possible to ease that transition.
  (Mr Avery) I do not believe that resources alone would ever have been sufficient to solve the Agency's difficulties in the past, given the problems that the Agency encountered—and, let it be said, the nature of the task that they had. Unlike most government departments, they are dealing with a balance between two parties, whose interests probably do not lie in the same direction. Where those interests lie in the same direction there would not be a problem anyway. So there are going to be these difficult cases, and the Agency are going to have problems. If they do not have sufficient resources—and this has been a theme through Ombudsmen's annual reports for as long as I have been in the Ombudsman's office—there will be problems. I am afraid there is the sort of sibyl again. However, if there are adequate resources, and I have listened with interest to what Mrs Boardman had to say about what the Agency will have to find for itself, there is a necessary condition for problems to be overcome. Is it a guarantee that problems will be overcome? Clearly not.

  92. One final question, if I may. There has been some anxiety expressed, not only this afternoon but throughout this debate, about whether or not the technology will be up to this transition. I think it would be wrong for me to ask whether or not you are confident that it will be, as it is outside your remit, but if it were found that there were problems with the technology, and that that, therefore, led to situations where people found that their particular cases were being compromised in some way, is that something that the Ombudsman would be able to make a judgment on?
  (Mr Avery) I believe so, yes. This Committee will be more familiar than most with the problems which have been taking place with other computer systems in the Department of Social Security, and there are other departments of government, again, it will be widely known, which are having problems with computers and that is having an effect on the service they are giving to the citizen. We are looking at complaints which Members of Parliament have referred relating to those. I would be jolly surprised, should there be problems with the CSA computer in the year 2001, if the Ombudsman was not asked to look into some of those problems as well.

Mr Dismore

  93. Can I just pick up on this resource issue again? I am looking at the letter from the Ombudsman of 19 October 1998 to Dame Ann Bowtell,[8] and particularly the last paragraph. There seems to be some inconsistencies, or I am not understanding what you are saying. The last but one paragraph reads: "Secondly, I think it would be a mistake to conclude that the complexity of the current formula has been the prime cause of all the Child Support Agency's difficulties up to now. Even with a simpler formula, unless appropriate investment is made in resourcing and training, I suspect that officials administering a new system may find it hard to do better than their predecessors in offering the level of service the public has a right to expect." Is the logical conclusion of that this: that if there had been the right level or a lot more resources the existing system could be made to work?

  (Mr Avery) I believe not. We might have believed that in the early years of the CSA's existence because the cases we initially investigated and the replies we were getting from the then chief executives of the Agency suggested, in good faith I am sure, that these were teething problems that the Agency had, that there were technical developments that would resolve the problems and that with more training the problem could be resolved. For a time, not just the Ombudsman but, I think, most of the people to whom those sorts of assurances were given, put a lot of credence in those assurances. Time has proved that those assurances, although well-meant, have turned out not to be the case. My personal view, and I know that of colleagues in the office and the Ombudsman, is that the system itself, unless there is simplification, will continue to throw up large numbers of complaints and the kind of problems that the White Paper identifies. It would be feasible to say "Because we want to go down the route of a complex system with absolute fairness these are problems up with which we are prepared to put", but that does not seem to be the accepted situation.

  94. What you are saying seems to me to be somewhat different to that letter because effectively if that is the case presumably the root cause of the problem is the complexity of the system.
  (Mr Avery) I think what the Ombudsman was saying to the then Permanent Secretary of the Department of Social Security was that it would be a misconception to think it would be the only problem in the system. The problems in the system have varied over time. One comes back to the issue that you are not going to resolve these difficulties by making any one change unless you remove some of several common causes of which clearly the complexity is one. There will continue to be difficulties because of the complexity, the absolute welter of the maintenance assessments that can come out at frequent intervals confusing everyone, the catch-up which our investigations showed the Agency is constantly within. One of the most basic problems that the Agency and people who have dealings with the Agency face, delay, is always exacerbated. So I do not think there is an inconsistency but certainly we do not think that simplification without other actions being taken, including the provision of necessary resources, will solve the problems.

  95. What do you think of the ambition perhaps, to put it relatively neutrally, of the Minister that you will be able to reverse the time spent on compliance as opposed to calculation? Do you think that is a practical objective?
  (Mr Avery) The Ombudsman is much stronger on hindsight than foresight so if you will forgive me I will pass on that particular question.

Dr Naysmith

  96. I have got your report for 1998-99 here and in the Child Support Agency section you talk about the reduction in the number of complaints that you have had and you seem to concede that there has been an improvement certainly in getting compensation and part of that is obviously due to the Independent Case Examiner being imposed but then you say at the end: "Despite those welcome improvements, the Ombudsman's investigations still show that the CSA continue to make significant errors."[9] What kind of errors are you talking about? Significant in what sense? Just important rather than trivial or significant saying something about the organisation?
  (Mr Avery) Significant in several senses. Significant to the individual complainant's concern of course because it affects their situation. Significant in the sense that despite the best efforts of the management of the Child Support Agency it is unfortunately the case that many of the basic administrative failings which the Ombudsmen have had cause to criticise in the past do continue to occur from time to time and I do not think the pattern of our reports—and we reported on something like 114 investigations last year—brings out any different lessons from those which Mrs Parker has reported on and she has seen more of the game than we do now and that is understandable and I think desirable, but the pictures have not changed. The CSA have made some improvements in some areas and certainly compared to four or five years ago their redress practices when they have made mistakes are better than they were then. Four or five years ago they took the stance "If we made a mistake it hasn't really hurt anyone, has it, because we can correct the mistake by saying to the non-resident parent, `Well, now we have corrected things we discover you owe an extra £10,000', and the good news for the parent with care would be `If you are prepared to wait until the year 2015 you might get it'." Now they do at least make lump sum payments to compensate, so things have improved in some ways and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that.

  97. Earlier on you said that the trade off between simplicity and fairness is one that simply has to be made. Has to be made why? Simply because you want to get away from the old system? Made for what reason?
  (Mr Avery) If you did not have to make the trade off I think it would follow in logic that you believed that the current system could be made to work. Experience suggests otherwise.

  98. What I am getting at is is this the only way to improve the system?
  (Mr Avery) It is not the only way to improve the system. There are many other improvements that will need to be made simultaneously, the new IT system in itself because the current IT system is not a very flexible one in my perception if you see some of the standard letters that come out. But unless you bite the bullet of simplification I think you must expect to continue to have some major problems.

Mr Leigh

  99. I want to follow on from that. You have just said and you said to us in your letter: "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" and as has been said you say: "However, the Ombudsman's individual investigations show that the Child Support Agency continue to exhibit significant shortcomings." What worries me is that do you not think it would have been wise to try to build on the good work? Progress has now been made and clearly you would suggest that in the last year considerable progress is being made. Should we not have concentrated on dealing with those things which are still wrong before we start changing the whole system?
  (Mr Avery) I understand the point you are making. It seems to me that rather than the Ombudsman it is the people who actually run the Agency who are the best placed to take judgments on what they are likely to be able to do or not to do. There is going to be a period, as I understand it, of something like two years from now and then longer for existing cases before everybody moves over to the new system so in part the answer to your question is yes, there is plenty of scope for improving the existing system and whilst there have been improvements in some areas of the Agency's performance, mistaken identity seems to occur much less than it used to for example, there is a long way to go and one trusts that the Agency will keep chipping away at that. But, and I am sorry to be so repetitive on performance, one comes back to the genuine belief that the system as it is has not worked and is not going to be made to work with the resources that seem likely to be made available to the Agency.

8  CS 8 not printed. Responses to the Green Paper are available on request from the Department of Social Security. Back
9  HC 572 para 3.7. Back

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