Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witness (Questions 100-111)

TUESDAY 14 SEPTEMBER 1999

MR JOHN AVERY CB

  100. I appreciate that you cannot really discuss policy and whether or not we should move to an entirely new system, but you know the shortcomings of this government body better than anybody and you refer to them in your letter to us. I think it might be useful to have in rather greater detail from you exactly what these shortcomings are and how we could make progress on them in the next year or two because what worries me is with all the resources that are going to be put into this new system it is very easy for a government body to start to put less emphasis on improving the old system and, as has already been said, all the best people would now move into dealing with the new system. This has happened before.
  (Mr Avery) I hope Mrs Boardman is better acquainted with the shortcomings of the CSA than I am, but certainly from the work that we have done in the past and investigations that we have carried out, I still think there is a deal of basic things that the Agency can and should be doing at grass-roots level to get itself in better order.

  101. Tell us some examples.
  (Mr Avery) The sort of examples which the Ombudsman has been preaching for years and years and years, as it were, and they really relate to people dealing with the cases and not just looking, for example, at the last documents on the file or on the computer screen and reaching knee-jerk decisions about "This is the way I need to deal with it" and dealing with it and then finding it is wrong and three days later sending out a correction which confuses everybody and three days after that sending out another correction. They are basic house-keeping issues and I think that is the first level of performance that needs to improve. The second level of improvement is decidedly more difficult and relates to the whole raison detre and mode of operation of the Agency. The problem that they are saddled with is the problem of having to play catch-up. Some adjustments and very useful adjustments potentially I believe have been made to the regulations in recent years and more particularly with some of the new decision-making arrangements which came into operation this summer which reduced what seemed to be a never-ending series of periodic reviews, change of circumstances reviews, other sorts of reviews that to be honest I never fully understood what they were, they were so complicated, and as a result one always seemed to be three steps behind the game. By the time the Ombudsman was looking into a case and had established what had happened and what was being complained about, we were six months further into it, there had been another two or three reviews, those reviews were going wrong—

  102. Reviews of reviews?
  (Mr Avery) Just so, yes. I am so sorry but I am led inexorably back to the concept that without simplification problems will exist.

Miss Kirkbride

  103. Edward has primarily asked my question of how else we could go forward. The only thing that strikes me is given that the Government is simplifying it but at the same time maintaining whatever it is now calling the departure process, which of course is unsimplifying it in the same breath, what views do you have on how you would take that task on board?
  (Mr Avery) The departures?

  104. Yes, or whatever they are being called under the new system.
  (Mr Avery) The exceptions.

  105. The exceptions, sorry, fancy not knowing that!
  (Mr Avery) I do not honestly believe that there is an easy solution to that sort of problem. One "solution"—because even the White Paper accepts that it is not a solution—is to have no departures at all. You have an absolutely rigid simple formula and that eliminates the departures problem. The difficulty of course is that it then leaves you with all the other problems about relative unfairness and real unfairness because people's circumstances are adjusted and if they are skilful they will therefore get away with it. I am sorry, there is no easy solution. I believe that there are enough clever people in the CSA that if there were an easy solution they would have found it and it is just a hard bullet that the legislature is going to have to bite.

  106. Are you going to be responsible for saying that it was unfair you did not give an exception in these circumstances? In which case, how do you intend to approach your task?
  (Mr Avery) That is a good question you ask and I wish I knew the answer to it. We have not had the detail, as the Minister accepted earlier, of the regulations and therefore until we see the detail of the regulations it is not at all clear to me, or to those in the office in which I work, which issues will be appealable to some of the new unified appeal tribunals. If, like maintenance now, they can be appealed to the unified appeal tribunals I think the Ombudsman would be saying to you, if you refer cases to him, "These are really matters for the tribunal system." If, however, there are some categories which are not appealable to the unified appeal tribunals, then, for want of any other resort, I am sure people will be seeking to come both to Mrs Parker and to the Ombudsman saying, "Can you not do anything about these perceived unfairnesses?" Maybe I should be looking at the staff resources we will be needing in 2001 as well, but I have not got an easy answer.

  107. In the course of the Bill going through Parliament and under the auspices of this Committee, are you perhaps able to give us guidance on what you need to have in the legislation in order that we do not create the coach and horses legislation of which you would be the policeman? We do not see your work in detail, we do not know how you would view something and whether it is different from how we view something.
  (Mr Avery) Straight forwardly, if an issue is something which would be taken to a tribunal, a legally constituted tribunal, then there is a provision in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act which says the parliamentary ombudsman should normally bow out from those areas. If there is no provision of that kind, it is an open field for the ombudsman if he thinks there is cause for him to come in. Whether we should be doing that or not, I think, if I may say so, is for members of this Committee and for Members of the House to decide, not the Ombudsman.

Mr Swayne

  108. Is it fair to say that if the reform delivers its objective of administrative efficiency and the number of complaints about maladministration diminishes that will be at the expense of the other type of complaint, namely the one about rough justice, from which you will be able to bow out of adjudicating on? There have been expressions of reluctance on the part of Members to actually confront that rough justice in their surgeries, so would we not therefore be better to inform public policy by abandoning any notion of customer satisfaction and accept that the Agency is never going to be loved and that we might make a virtue of rough justice by saying that it is the proper penalty or disincentive for the condition into which the customer has delivered himself?
  (Mr Avery) Whether you should do that I think I have to leave to your own judgment. Have you accurately summarised what I believe to be the dilemma everyone is going to have to face? Yes, I believe you have.

Mr Pond

  109. I think many people feel that one of the advantages of the proposed changes of more face-to-face contact and indeed telephone contact is that it will make the Agency more accessible and it will break down some of what I think Mrs Parker suggested was the animosity and the tension which currently exists. However, in the Ombudsman's letter to the former Permanent Secretary there is the difficulty which is raised by that which is that there will be far fewer written records; you may well say that does not matter a lot because the CSA used to lose records anyway. In fact there is the case, which I am sure is in the front of your mind, C 756/98 in the Selected Cases and Summaries of Completed Investigations, October 1998 to March 1999,[10] the case of Miss V where in fact the documentation was lost and that increased the length of time for that case to be brought to a proper conclusion. The Ombudsman says something very interesting in the letter to the former Permanent Secretary which is, "I shall not accept the absence of a note on file or computer as a rebuttal . . ." if there is other corroborating evidence, ". . . on the contrary, the onus of proof in these circumstances will be on the Agency."[11] That seems to me to be a very important statement, and I wonder if it is a statement of the current situation as well or whether it is a change given the new proposed procedures, and whether or not you think this is going to have a very significant effect on the way in which the Agency itself operates? If the officers have in mind the fact that they may have a referral to the Ombudsman or some other Agency if something goes wrong, will there be a tendency for them to prefer to do things in writing rather than use the telephone or have face-to-face contact?
  (Mr Avery) I do not think the Ombudsman's suggestion that following face-to-face contact, or for that matter significant telephone contact, some brief permanent record of what was discussed and agreed is somehow available on the system is anything other than straight forward good administration. It is not a problem that is peculiar to the Child Support Agency or even the DSS; we investigate many, many cases now not in the child support field. Married women, for example, are saying that they were given bad advice about the married woman's contribution election back in the 1970s or whenever, and unless there is some evidence it is practically impossible for anyone after a lapse of time to reach a judgment on what was said. I believe it would be good administrative practice for officials in the Agency who have had brief or prolonged contact face-to-face with someone both (a) to make a note of the salient points which were discussed and, (b), I strongly suspect it would ease their life as well as the person with whom they are having dealings in the future if they can find the time shortly thereafterwards to send a brief note (and I am not suggesting anything other than brief) summarising their understanding of the points which were agreed. Indeed, my great concern, and the Ombudsman's great concern, is if they do not do that there is going to be scope for further argument and further confusion later and complaints will increase, not diminish.

  110. I take the point you make. Given, from some of the cases highlighted in this report, there are not even records under the current circumstances—computer records or any other written notes of cases—is that guidance really going to have a big impact on the way the CSA operates in the future?
  (Mr Avery) We will keep plugging the message because it is a message we have plugged in the past and we see it as an essential message. Whether it will have a big impact or not, perhaps that is something you might wish to ask on Thursday morning when I think you have a further session which includes officials from the CSA.

  Mr Pond: Perhaps we can underline that message. I think it is important.

Chairman

  111. All the classical oracles were always ignored! Reading between the lines of everything you have said, we are heading for trouble here, are we not? Professionally in your bones everything you have done in your professional life leads you to the conclusion that we are heading for a degree of administrative chaos with this change?
  (Mr Avery) No, I would not phrase it that way in my own words, Chairman. What I would say, rather, and it is a difference, is that there will continue to be complaints. I believe that given the task the Agency has to do however you simplify it, given the way they have to hold the balance between parties whose interests are not always pulling in the same direction, there will be complaints. The Agency has a double constituency compared with most government departments. After all, if I get cheesed off with the Inland Revenue it is a quarrel between me and the Inland Revenue, but if I am in dispute with the Child Support Agency, to the extent they are giving me satisfaction there is likely to be another party who is starting to feel aggrieved with them as well, so they are going to get complaints. The key issue will be how many complaints and how many will be justified, and if they could get down to the "Whitehall norm" I would think they had done rather well.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. That has been extremely valuable. Thank you very much for coming.


10  HC 527, page 209. Back
11  CS8 not printed. Back

 
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