Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 381 - 399)




  381. Can I welcome our friends from the Public and Commercial Services Union, Mr Malcolm Tetley, Mr Charles Law and Ms Moira Campbell. We are very grateful to you. This has been the end of a long hard day and you have been listening attentively for some time at the back. We are particularly grateful for your attendance because it is useful for us to balance some of the operational questions that the Minister was talking about, indeed the operational questions are crucially important, particularly the transitional process. Your submission has been very helpful and has reminded us of some of the policy issues in the White Paper because that was really what we asked you to do. I would like to try to take your advice on some of the technical staff issues, some of the morale issues, some of the turnover issues, indeed low pay and that kind of thing. Perhaps, Malcolm, you could make a brief opening statement and we will take it from there.

  (Mr Tetley) Yes, of course. The opening introduction was always going to be brief because you have our evidence in chief, our draft evidence on the White paper and also the summary version. By way of introduction, I am Malcolm Tetley, the National Officer with responsibility for the CSA in the Public and Commercial Services Union. Together with me today are Moira Campbell, who is the Group President and a member of our National Executive Committee who actually works in the Falkirk CSA Centre.

  382. My very own. I feel a personal attachment because it covers my own constituency. At last I have found someone I can call my own in the CSA.
  (Mr Tetley) My colleague on my left, Charles Law, works in the Sheffield field office and is one of my Group Assistant Secretaries within the PCS. We have the combination of somebody who works in the field and somebody who works in one of the CSA centres. In relation to PCS all I think we want to say there is that we represent most of the staff who work in the Agency, around about 5,500 members, about 70 per cent of the staff who work at the Agency, and in general, as you will see from our submission, we are reasonably pleased with the majority of what is contained within the White Paper as indeed it meets most of what was contained in our Green Paper submission earlier. In relation to the issues that you probably want to address with us, I think paragraph 28[20] of our main submission is particularly pertinent in the sense that PCS and the predecessor unions have been saying since the very, very outset of the CSA that the legislation was never going to work, that it was rushed in and that the staff who work within the Agency, our members, have been frustrated from day one by a lack of resources, by a lack of experience, by low pay, by very poor morale which has arisen from all of those problems, but at the same time they have not been able to express those views publicly because of the Official Secrets Act. So they have been constrained on the one hand by poor legislation which simply has not worked and could never work but at the same time, other than through the union's channels, have been unable to express those views publicly. Obviously the two main areas for us are the simplification of the legislation and more adherence to compliance and actually collecting the assessments in the future. We think that they are two fundamental elements, but more than that I do not think I want to say because, as I say, we have said it all in the submissions and we obviously await your questions.

  383. Can I just start by asking about the current state of morale. Some of these recent television documentaries we have all been watching with great fascination suggest that the chaos internally was much greater even than we suspected, those of us in Parliament who were trying to look after the legislation. Are you confident that that has improved? Is the trend in the right direction? Is it still difficult? Are you still getting razor blades through the post and all that kind of thing? Are you confident that your staff are beginning to be allowed to work in circumstances where they can even half-way expect to be able to do their job properly?
  (Mr Tetley) I think I will hand over to both my colleagues in a moment, but first of all perhaps I could just say that the current position is that staff wastage rates in the CSA are still running in the order of 27 per cent per annum, definitely the highest in the whole of the Civil Service. People are leaving because of those very issues of low pay, low morale, stress, bad management in some situations. What we have been doing as a Union is working in partnership with the Agency and, to be fair, since Faith Boardman came in as Chief Executive, she has committed herself to improving staff morale by trying to reduce the amount of bullying and intimidation that was apparent in some of the management circles within the Agency and there have been some improvements from the management side. As I say, we have been trying to work together and we have had a number of joint initiatives together over the past few months and indeed we are addressing some of these issues through pay negotiation and trying to improve pay for the lowest paid members and so on and so forth, so some of that is having some impact, but at this point in time wastage rates are still very high. As I say, Charles and Moira work in the Agency, so perhaps they could give you their views.

  384. Do you get different pay and rations from other front-line staff in the Benefits Agency, for example?
  (Ms Campbell) Yes, each agency within the Department of Social Security actually has different terms and conditions and pay which you may find quite bizarre. That was one of the areas that we have attempted with the Secretary of State to address this year, to bring the DSS back to having more comparable terms and conditions and comparable pay levels and if successfully over a number of years we are allowed to get back to a system where staff understand what the pay system is and there is some stability within it, we feel that that certainly is one of the concerns that staff have raised. Quite recently, the Agency and ourselves in partnership have done quite a significant staff attitude survey and one of the things that is quite clear is that the main element of the five most important motivational factors for staff has been not being fairly rewarded and feeling that their work is not appreciated. One of the demotivating factors that they feel in the Agency at the moment is the fact that they are not being fairly rewarded and that they are not working for an employer who treats them fairly and they want to be able to influence the change within the CSA. The staff in the CSA are very committed to what they do. They believe wholeheartedly in the ethos of the Child Support Agency, but I was in the Agency from day one and you started off on the 6th April with probably 24 staff in a centre that was supposed to house 450 people. Now, because there was no transition of moving to child support, after training I sat at a desk with 500 cases in front of me and to get out of that backlog situation since day one has been the biggest problem for the Agency with everybody throwing cases at us from every direction, believing that we could do it. We had no experience, the computer system did not deliver what it should have delivered and we had no live running experience of the system and that in itself was demotivating for staff. Clearly, as we have moved on, there is a vast experience level within the Agency and I think that that will stand us in good stead for taking the reforms forward, the fact that we have a historical background, we know what went wrong and we know what we need to change to improve it. Recently clearly the CSA has been at the forefront of bringing in the decision-making, the appeals system which simplifies the assessment-making for us and hopefully that is going to stand us in good stead for delivering the reforms that come on board.

  385. The backlog target set for earlier this year was not met. Is that your experience on the ground?
  (Ms Campbell) Yes. Of course backlogs develop and it depends on what you measure. The statistics that we have used consistently over the last five years have changed drastically, so really it depends on which statistics a Minister wants on which particular day, so you can measure any backlog in any shape or form, but clearly backlogs have been a problem and the complexity of the formula has just made it impossible for us to catch up on these backlogs, and there is the turnover of 27 per cent of staff. I worked in the Benefits Agency—I hate to say this—for 20 years before I came to the Child Support Agency and I also worked in an environment where I worked in the liable relative section which was the predecessor to child support and there were backlogs which came from that section because it was the first area of the Benefits Agency office that got shut down and starved of staff when there were problems, so there was a backlog in the Child Support Unit before the Agency came on board and that was particularly significant when we became an agency. Some of these people are still there in the field offices who delivered the liable relative system, but unfortunately I do not think we used the experience of these people enough on the ground where we could deliver what was needed in the future.

  386. But there is a chink of light at the end of the tunnel. You are sounding to me as if things are hard, you need help, some things are being addressed and there is still some work to do, but that you have got some confidence that the thing over the next two, three or five years might start working out?
  (Mr Law) I do not think, to be honest, that the current system can ever work with the current legislation. I think that is the bottom line. The current formula is essentially unworkable. It is too complicated to administer and I have tried many times in my official job to explain that to people and it is a very difficult thing to do. It takes an inordinate amount of time to do it and at the end you are not convinced that you have managed to explain it to anybody. I think the system of child support has got to be comprehensible to the man in the street and, therefore, it has got to be simple and simpler than it is at the moment, so if we are giving an impression that things are getting better, that is only half the story. If there is not a fundamental reform of the legislation, the improvements will be fairly marginal.

Mr Dismore

  387. Can I first of all pick up on your paragraphs 36 and 37[21], "Moving to the new scheme". I think that the fears you express there are the fears that a lot of us have, that there is a very high expectation that people already assessed will get their position sorted out rather quickly and the present position, as explained to us by the Minister, is that it is probably going to take rather longer than that. They were being very cautious and trying to make sure they got things right and did not create through the "big bang" approach more problems than they solved, but you seem to be convinced that it would be practical and possible to bring the existing cases on stream much more quickly. Why do you think you are right and this is wrong? I should say as a declaration of interest that the PCS is one of the clients of my law firm.

  (Mr Law) I think that there are two elements. Firstly, there is a political imperative, if you like, from your side that you are going to get people clamouring at your door, so I think it is very desirable from that point of view to get it in as quickly as possible. Ever since the Green Paper was published, we have had customers of the Agency coming to us and saying, "When does the new formula come in?" and 2001 is still a long time away even if 2001 is when it does come in. In terms of is it achievable, I am obviously not privy to all the information that the Minister is but I use a couple of examples of major transitions from one system to another that the DSS have done certainly in a lot shorter time period, within a year in both cases I think, from supplementary benefit to income support and then income support to JSA for unemployed people. That was achieved but there are two things that have to be put into it. You have got to resource that kind of transitional period and you have got to have the IT system in there to deliver it. I think possibly part of the reason why the Minister is being a bit hesitant is the worry about the new IT system for child support. There do seem to be problems with the original plan of it going with the new income support IT system, that seems to have hit the buffers a bit. I think that may be one of the reasons why there is a problem. Certainly our view is that for the interests of the customers it would definitely be better to bring it in as quickly as possible. I think the Agency can deliver it but I would add that caveat of an IT system and adequate resources.

  388. I can understand your desire to get it done as quickly as possible, both the new cases and the existing cases. As I recall the transfer to JSA was put back to make sure that it was done properly.
  (Mr Law) I think it was three months.

  389. Six months.
  (Mr Law) Sorry, six months.

  390. Would you prefer to see a situation where to achieve what you want, ie quicker transition for existing cases coupled with putting new cases on, you would have have the system put back, have the kick-off date put back, or would you prefer to have a longer transition period if it turns into an either/or question?
  (Mr Law) I think obviously how far you put it back is the answer to that because if you put it back two years then you might as well have a two year transitional period. The danger that I can see of the transitional period is that people are going to say "why should I pay under the old rate when my neighbour is paying under the new rate?" I think people are going to have a lot of trouble understanding that and I am going to have trouble explaining to people that it is just inevitable that that is the case. If there is a way around getting it in quicker then let us try and find it. I think it is one of these things where if we put the will in there maybe we can work together to do that.

  391. The other thing I wanted to ask about was your paragraph 26[22] where you object to the idea of the Inland Revenue taking over the system. We have obviously had different views expressed to us about that. At a superficial level, perhaps more than a superficial level, there are some attractions in the Inland Revenue taking over with a clean break from the old system. People know that the Inland Revenue does not mess about and you have to pay when you are told and that sort of thing, so I would perceive some psychological advantages perhaps in the Inland Revenue doing it. Perhaps you could explain further your objections to that.

  (Mr Law) As a union we represent members of the Inland Revenue as well so we are not having a go at our colleagues in the Revenue at all. I think the people that we do represent specifically in the CSA are employed by the Department of Social Security and they have got an attachment to working for the Department of Social Security, so there is an element of that. There is also an element that you could, if you like, just change the name and call us Inland Revenue but it is the same people in the same places doing the same thing, which is very similar to what has just happened with the Working Families Tax Credit where people have just moved across and in the Contributions Agency as well. That would not cause us any particular problems other than we would be working for a different Government department. I think the real thing about the Inland Revenue is that they are essentially a tax collection organisation and, therefore, they are good at collecting money. What they have not got the experience in is the associated problems with family break up, child maintenance, child support, access to children, and all those kinds of issues that get thrown at you when you are dealing with child support, whereas those of us who have worked in the DSS and CSA for a long time do build up some kind of knowledge of how to address some of these issues and have experience of avenues that we can guide people down. We do not want to lose the experience that people in the CSA have got in terms of some of the wider areas to do it. Then there is the practical thing about paying the money out. The DSS and the CSA have systems in place for paying money out but the Inland Revenue is not quite so famed for that.
  (Ms Campbell) I think that is probably one of the areas where we have some serious concerns about going to the Inland Revenue. To civil servants it does not really matter who you work for, you are a civil servant, but it is the impact of the Inland Revenue having nothing in place to pay money out on a very quick turnover whereas the DSS as a benefits paying organisation is used to paying money out on a regular weekly, daily basis and they understand the complexities surrounding that. Certainly we are now working more hand in hand with the Benefits Agency in the delivery of child support together with the benefits system. It would seem to be a complexity that we do not need to involve another Government department with different legislation and different powers.

  392. The problem with paying money out is you have to collect it in the first place. That is where the CSA has fallen down badly.
  (Mr Law) What the CSA can do, and I am sure when you spoke to Faith Boardman she told you, is they are in the process of trying to get more expertise in terms of collecting and the Inland Revenue is one of the parties that they are looking to help and advise and tap into that experience. They are at an early stage of doing that but hopefully that will work and, if you like, will address that problem.
  (Mr Tetley) I think at the risk of being criticised by my colleagues in the Revenue, because in fact I have worked most of my life in the Revenue and indeed I represented the Revenue before I came across to the CSA for the union, what has become increasingly clear to me over the past couple of years is that there are some fairly senior people in the Revenue who have gone public on the fact that they do not want anything to do with the Child Support Agency: "we are unpopular enough as it is dealing with the revenue, the last thing we want is child support". I think that sends out the wrong signals, bad signals, to CSA staff. The proposal which is being taken forward, which is that you bring in the expertise of people from other Government departments and to some extent in certain circumstances the private sector who have particular expertise in collecting assessments, collecting tax or whatever, I think that is the right approach as long as we get the right people working for and on behalf of the Child Support Agency. That is the correct approach rather than simply transferring lock, stock and barrel across to another department.
  (Ms Campbell) The issue of the Inland Revenue is very much highlighted around the collection of taxes. The one thing that we want to divorce from that is that child support is not a tax, it is the responsibility of the parent to maintain their child and it is about children. If you start putting it together with the Inland Revenue, the DSS has always had the ability to look at child poverty as a whole whereas the Inland Revenue is mostly the collection of tax and I think that would send the wrong signals to the people required to comply with us.

Mrs Humble

  393. Andrew has pinched both of my questions, the rotten meanie, but that does not mean that I cannot ask tangential questions. We have already explored with other witnesses the issue of the phasing in of the new system. We have been looking at it from the point of view of our constituents coming to us, knocking on our doors and saying: "why can I not be reassessed under the new system if there is going to be a delay?" I would like you to explain to us a little about how it will affect your members on the ground because if there is a delay between incorporating the existing payments on to the new system you are going to have your members, CSA staff, working two very different systems alongside each other, one system that is by anybody's definition horrendously complicated and virtually unworkable, and a new system that hopefully will be much easier to deliver and give more satisfaction to your customers and to your members in operating it. What is going to happen on the ground?
  (Ms Campbell) Yes, it will be difficult. It will be difficult to administer running these two systems. The longer we are running them the more difficult it is going to be. This is probably where I am going to be a bit uncharitable to the management of the Agency, but they took the decision to get rid of staff in the field sites, in 170 field offices, and move work into processing sites and into centres and erode the experience that was there from ex-Benefits Agency staff and from the staff who had the ability to see people face to face. We have made our points on that, I think, quite clear through most of our submissions, that we think they have got it wrong. It was a big disappointment to us that when discussions were taking place with the Agency about this issue, we found it was already included in the Green Paper when the Green Paper came out and clearly that puts the onus on Ministers as the Ministers are making the decision about the operation of the Child Support Agency and we feel that that part of it is wrong because it offers us a number of opt-outs. It gives us the staff there who have been experienced in this Agency from the outset, and it also gives us the opportunity to use these people for the transitional arrangements where they can take work on board in the centres and it also gives us an opportunity to probably take the flack away from Ministers and MPs because where people have more opportunity to be able to come and discuss the problem face to face with people in the local office environment, then they are less likely to be writing letters to their constituent MPs. Where the Agency has led people to believe that they are going to put these 600 people on the ground to deliver a face-to-face service, that was how the Agency was set up initially and we moved away from that because as we got into the problems dealing with the backlogs, the staff were then put on to the business of doing maintenance assessments and the collection of information, so, therefore, they were discouraged from seeing people face to face and we feel that that is the reason why MPs have had their heavy postbags. If somebody could have gone to the local Benefits Agency office and seen a member from the CSA and at least had it explained to them what was happening with their case, then that would have reduced the frustration of individuals initially anyway and clearly obviously the responsibility then is for us to take that to its conclusion and make sure that their assessment and compliance is carried out quickly. We feel that the Agency have definitely got that wrong and the belief that these 600 people are going to be on the ground to see people face to face, that is factually incorrect.

  394. Where are they going to be then?
  (Ms Campbell) These people will be based in one office and will be visiting. Say, in London, there will be no London offices, but these people will have one office where maybe ten people have face-to-face duties, as they call them, face-to-face officers, and people will have to make an appointment to see these individuals, so if you were to see a face-to-face officer, yes, the ability is there to make an appointment, but it will never be on an ad hoc basis. You will only be able to see somebody by appointment and that may be three weeks down the line and I do not think that is what MPs wanted. They wanted the ability for somebody to be able to go into a local office and to be able to deal with staff on an ad hoc face-to-face basis, so these staff that are going to be in the field doing the face-to-face work, although we welcome that, and we welcome that very much, certainly it is not the way that we see it being taken forward, particularly when you get into difficulties with two transitional arrangements. People do not want to wait a couple of weeks to see somebody. They do not want to have to wait until eight o'clock at night and the staff do not want to be visiting people in their homes at eight o'clock at night and we think that that element needs to be looked at again and that is fundamental to keeping these experienced staff in the field offices to be able to deliver that system. In terms of your second point about how we are going to operate this, the DSS have experience of delivering "big bang" scenarios where we are moving work under new arrangements, but that is in a case of good management and it is a case of resources and managing a problem. I can understand why you would want to look with reservation at what has happened in the past with backlogs and we do not want to get into that situation again. We do not want to get into a scenario like that with the NIRS computer system and the Passport Agency and I can understand the caution in that, but there are also disadvantages to running two system in tandem with each other over a lengthy period of time with the unfairness to the individuals that are going to be caught up in that.

  395. And then there is the staff morale, which is the point that the Chairman raised at the beginning. Would you like to add anything?
  (Mr Law) I think your original question was about how well staff react to the transition.

  396. How will it be managed on the ground? Will you have one office with people working in the new system?
  (Mr Law) At the moment I do not think the Agency management know the answer to that because I think they are still in quite an early stage of planning that and it is obviously going to be very difficult. I think from our members' point of view, we want to have, if you like, some say in what the eventual outcome of the proposed decision-making processes are so that it is not a repeat of 1993 where we were told, "This is what you are doing, end of story" because I think we have got something to contribute and that very early on in 1992/93 when we went on the training, we could say, "Well, hang on a minute. This just is not going to work", so the earlier that we can be brought into that process, the better, but, to be honest with you, apart from seeing the White Paper and the Green Paper, we have had so far very little information from Agency management as to exactly how they intend to manage the transition. They have told us that they will be consulting with us regularly, so either they are not consulting us or they do not know yet and I suspect that they are still working it out for themselves.

  397. May I pick up again on the other important issue which Andrew raised, which is whether or not child support should be administered by the Inland Revenue. The organisations who are putting this forward seem to be doing so because of the awful record of their dealings with the CSA, which is understandable given the system that you were required to operate, so it was felt that a clean break might be a lot better. You gave a very forceful answer to Andrew, but I just wonder if you can comment on the earlier evidence that we had about the fact that under the new system the training of staff is going to be reduced because it is going to be a much simpler system, so you are not going to need as much training, that you will be able to turn around the assessments much more quickly because they are going to be simpler assessments to do, and the impression we have been given is that under the new system, because the length of time taken on assessments is going to be reduced, you are going to be able to concentrate much more on compliance, on making sure that you are getting things right, that you are getting the money in and that the money is being paid, in other words, you will be a much more efficient organisation. What additional reassurances can you give the Committee that you are the best people to do it within a reformed CSA operating under this new system as opposed to this new system being either done by the Inland Revenue or somebody else?
  (Mr Law) If you do not use us, then you are going to have to recruit another 8,000 or however many people you need to do it, just like that, so from a practical point of view, we are there and we are willing to do it. We have gained a lot of experience in the last difficult five years and we have hopefully learnt some of the lessons of 1993. Yes, there will be less training, if you like, on how to do a maintenance assessment, how to calculate one, which means you can then have more training on improving customer service and improving how you speak to people on the telephone and on improving how you persuade people that they really should pay and not seek to avoid paying, and that kind of shift in the priorities, if you like, from just calculating assessments to actually making people pay, I think, gives a big opportunity for us to move in that direction.
  (Mr Tetley) Also there is a fairly fundamental difference in the Inland Revenue. The Inland Revenue, as I am sure you know, has the Tax Inspectorate wing and the Collector of Taxes wing. The Collector of Taxes task is to go out and collect the tax, plain and simple. The Collector of Taxes does not get involved with the individual taxpayers in the assessment process. They do not argue or discuss with the customers, if I can call them that, on the doorstep when they are knocking on the door with the bailiff seeking payment of Schedule D or outstanding PAYE from an employer, they are there to collect the tax and they have techniques, they have systems in place, to collect the tax. I do not think child support will ever be that simplistic. I am not saying that life in the Inland Revenue is simplistic, indeed I know it is not because I have worked in it, but I think there is a different sensitivity in dealing with child support from dealing with assessments of income tax, be they PAYE, Schedule D or whatever, which need different skills and different specialisms. Even at the risk of being criticised by my colleagues in the Inland Revenue who might describe me as being potentially disloyal to them, having worked with them for most of my working life, I believe that there are different sensitivities and different specialisms which people who work with the Child Support Agency and have stuck it out loyally through thick and thin have and deserve the opportunity to deliver on to the new system.

  398. Do you think that the resources promised by the Government to operate the new system are going to be sufficient? Are there going to be enough staff there and other resources to enable you to deliver the new system properly?
  (Ms Campbell) In the short-term no, we will probably need increased resources to get over these transitional hurdles. If we are administering the system as it stands at the moment and we cannot cope with the staffing levels we have at the moment, clearly if you run something alongside it that is going to need more resourcing. Irrespective of who operates this system, be it the Inland Revenue, be it a private sector organisation, and I said this to a journalist a few weeks ago, you cannot replace 9,000 staff overnight, it is going to be the same people who will be working for that organisation, the same staff delivering the reforms and keeping the system running as it stands at the moment. We have that experience. Some staff may not want to work for a private sector organisation or the Inland Revenue, so therefore that would mean they would move on. We would hope to keep that consistency throughout the Agency. Just to pick up what you said before about the training, I am sorry if I misled you there but the one thing that we will not be letting management off the hook on is reduced training because the whole point of us getting into this situation in child support was the inadequacy of the training and the length of it. The staff who started in that organisation with the complexity of the formula got four weeks training and that included a week's induction about being a civil servant. That was inadequate. The one thing we will be pushing for in this whole system is better training and training that is better resourced. That is the one thing when you go into a new system that you cannot afford to reduce. We would look for extra resources to give our staff time to consolidate, to take on board the new system, to know exactly how to deliver it and to give them a head start rather than before where they were plunged into darkness very quickly.

  399. I hope I am not misrepresenting the management position but my recollection is that the new proposed system is a lot simpler than the old one and the number of days to master it will be less.
  (Ms Campbell) If an assessment at the current time takes six weeks, for example, with the DMA process and the reduced assessment then you will not have to use as many screens or collect as much information and you can do a lot of your work over the phone which you were never able to do in the past. It will reduce the timescale that it takes but certainly I do not anticipate that the complexity of the assessment will reduce that much.

  Chairman: I am very conscious of the fact that we have only got six minutes left and we have still got some areas to cover.

20   See Ev p 152. Back

21   See Ev p 153. Back

22   See Ev p 152. Back

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