Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 412)



Dr Naysmith

  400. I have a quick short question. I certainly do not blame the present staff for anything that has happened, there are all sorts of reasons why the system has got into trouble. One of the things that I am sure you will have heard people bringing to MPs' surgeries very often is reassessments arriving either on the same day or two to three days apart which means that different parts of the system are working on their case in ignorance of the fact that is happening. It is happening much less now but was that a problem to do with staff training, was it a problem to do with IT systems being inadequate, was it a problem of things being handled in lots of different offices rather than at the centre, which brings us to one of the things we have been talking about? Why did that happen and how do we make absolutely certain that sort of thing will not happen again?
  (Mr Law) The specific example you are giving of when you get two envelopes on the mat on the same day with three or four different assessments in them is mainly down to the IT system. There will be one person doing three or four assessments going back over a period of time because of the backlog or whatever but the IT system was geared to only put two assessments in an envelope at once, so for three assessments that means two envelopes. Why that was I do not know, that was whoever designed the IT. The added reason why that happened in the first place was because somebody had to do three assessments on one day which comes back to why was there a backlog in the first place and why were you not doing just the latest assessment? That comes back to more of the earlier resources and the problem of getting information and those kinds of issues. The element of where different people do different things, that is more to do with the way the CSA is organised in terms of the people doing the assessments on the one hand and the people trying to collect the money on the other and sometimes they are not all working in absolute synchronicity.

  401. The new IT system that is going to be brought in will make

  sure that does not happen?
  (Mr Law) The IT system is absolutely—

  402. You are going to insist on that?
  (Mr Law) If we can, yes. I cannot stress how bad the current system is. Since 1993 it has been improved markedly but it is still a very poor IT system. Communications in terms of IT within the CSA compared to other organisations is appalling. We are still totally dependent on fax machines when everyone else is using e-mail. If somebody walks into a local field office with all the information, you have to fax it to the centre to process it, why can it not just be processed where the person walks in and talks to the person, for example? All the technology is there but the Agency has never used it because no-one has put the money up front to get that kind of IT system that is needed. It would not be tolerated in the private sector.
  (Mr Tetley) It is a very difficult concept to get across because we all appreciate the extent to which Government funding is severely constrained. I think by working in partnership between the Agency, the Government and hopefully ourselves as the union we have to have sufficient resources in the Agency for the Agency to work. I think the point was made several times in the first part of the documentary the other night that what happened back in 1992/93 was that legislation was proposed but then very quickly Government ministers and others close to the CSA walked away from it, staff resources were cut, insufficient resources were placed in training, the IT system was inadequate. We cannot afford to have any repetition of that otherwise, despite the best efforts of the White Paper and the revisions to the reform of the legislation, it will not work and the first thing that happens is that the Chancellor or whoever withdraws funding and says "you have got to manage with 25 per cent funding for the next two years".


  403. If I understood what you were saying earlier, your second hand IT system which you were lumbered with did not work but now I think you have said that with the income support system, I guess that must be the CAPS system within the Benefits Agency, your new IT system is going to be dependent upon that working first.
  (Mr Law) No, that was the original plan. The plan is to modernise all the IT across the DSS for every benefit. The first tranche of that is going to be a joint venture between the CSA and income support and have one IT system that will deliver both income support and child support. I believe that has hit the rocks. They are now planning to separate them which I think is probably a better thing altogether.

  404. You will have your own custom built software and hardware?
  (Mr Law) The idea now is for a child support specific IT system.
  (Ms Campbell) The whole point of the Affinity Project was that when you put information on to an income support system it would broadcast it on to the CSA. As it stands at the moment we have had prototype projects where we are working together, the income support people, the CSA and local authorities, and we have had these pilots operate where in theory it works well but without the one system to share the information it means that they have these systems where they speak to people over the telephone and they record it on the system. However, because of the complications of that process and the ownership of the system, the CSA cannot get access to the income support documents, so they have to take it off what they call a "clone", so they have to take it off the income support system and then put the same information into the child support system. Now, if we had the one system, that information in terms of the children, the names, addresses, et cetera, would just be broadcast from one system to another.

  405. They would never do that in two years. They would never get that all sorted in two years.
  (Ms Campbell) Well, that was the intention. It was part of the Modernising Government programme.
  (Mr Law) It has all been outsourced to a variety of companies, EDS and other companies like that, and they have been working on it for some time, although I am not privy to the details behind it.

Mr Leigh

  406. My question is really on the same subject, but what rumours have you heard about the proposed IT system, let alone linking it to income support?
  (Mr Law) The original plan to link it to income support has been dropped and the plan now is that the CSA is the only one and I am led to believe that the Affinity team that are delivering it can produce something. Whether they can produce it in time for October 2001, which is the likely start date at the moment, they seem to be thinking that maybe they cannot, so there is a risk of the reforms starting, which I think is one of the reasons why they wanted to bring it in over a long period, without the new IT system up and running.

  407. This may be the fag end of the day, but I think this is a very important answer because it is not the same answer as Baroness Hollis was giving us yesterday afternoon. She did say that if this was not ready, she would not bring it in, but there was no question or any detail given, as you have just given us, that it would not be ready by October 2001. I just have an awful feeling that we are running into some of the problems we have had in the previous changeovers.
  (Mr Law) The health warning I put on my reply is that it is an area which for obvious reasons has been clouded with quite a bit of secrecy and we certainly have not had written documents from our management to that effect, but that is my understanding of where we are with it.

  Mr Leigh: I think we should question the Minister further on it.


  408. But presumably you would expect to have some consultation about how the system was set up?
  (Mr Law) Yes.

Mr Leigh

  409. You said earlier that it was thought that the Affinity people could produce something, you said.
  (Mr Law) That was probably the wrong word, but that they would produce a child support computer system. The problem was the timetable. They can produce a child support-specific system, but there is a question over whether they can do it for October 2001, so there is a risk that we may have to go into the new reforms under the current IT system. That is the danger.

  410. The Minister has been telling us that if it is not ready by October 2001, they will not bring in the new reforms. You seemed to be suggesting just now in your answer that there is a plan to do the new reforms under the old IT system.
  (Mr Law) That is what management told us was certainly under consideration.

  411. So that is another very important point. We now know that the management are actively considering bringing in the new reforms on the old IT system. Is that right?
  (Mr Law) They are considering it, but I would be overstating it to say that they are definitely doing that because I am not privy to where they are with the IT.
  (Mr Tetley) I think, to be fair, you ask us to speculate a bit.
  (Mr Law) We have given as much information as we have got.


  412. People have got long journeys home and we are very grateful to you for coming and giving evidence and helping us with the inquiry. It has been an extremely interesting and informative session. May I just say, Malcolm, that you might just take it back to your members from us because we, as politicians, are hopeless at recognising the work done in the public service on our behalf by your members, and particularly against the background of some of the evidence we got from the documentaries we have seen, that we do appreciate the work they are doing and indeed you made the case very powerfully in your memorandum that it was not their fault. I am sure my colleagues would agree with that sentiment, so would you make the point of trying to find a way of saying, on behalf of the Committee, thanks for all that they are doing.
  (Mr Tetley) We certainly well and those comments are appreciated.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for your appearance.

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