Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. Sir Hayden, in your letter of 17 March it says "The Index will shortly be transferring into a modern database". Mr Smedley, are you telling us that has happened?
  (Mr Smedley) It is now available, yes.

  101. When did that happen? When did that work begin and when did it end?
  (Mr Smedley) I am not sure when it began but it finished and the database became available about four weeks ago now.

  102. Four weeks ago, about 17 March?
  (Mr Smedley) Something along that line, yes.

  103. The letter, Sir Hayden, you sent us on 17 March said that you "... will shortly be transferred on to a modern database".
  (Mr Smedley) Maybe a week after that but it was around that time, late March. I can give you a specific date.

  104. I just want to know whether it was done before the letter was written, that is all.
  (Mr Smedley) Around that time.

  105. I am in the same situation as my colleague, Mr Williams, in that I suspect we should offer congratulations to those who are currently responsible for getting this database and Index modernised but we are in the position of having to ask questions about your predecessor's activities to yourself really. In terms of what has gone on before, or even what is going on now, where is the hard copy of this Index base? Where is it physically based?
  (Mr Smedley) It is in the Court Funds Office.

  106. Do you expect visits from solicitors and the individuals involved in this?
  (Mr Smedley) It is not visited very often. At the moment all the main queries come from abroad, with people writing letters saying, "A recent piece of family history suggested there may be some money available."

  107. If somebody was to wander off the street, be it a solicitor or somebody who has experience of mental incapacity at some point—
  (Mr Smedley) Not at all. The mental incapacity point in this aspect is a bit of a red herring. This is to do with county court litigation. The types of people who might look at this are, as you say, solicitors or people who have been involved in litigation.

  108. How often does your office access it?
  (Mr Smedley) The office accesses it in response to correspondence. I do not have the exact figures on that. There are probably five or six requests a day. As for in-person callers I am not even sure there is one a day.

  109. Right. Thank you. Why was it allowed to get 18 months behind?
  (Mr Smedley) What I would say on that is that this was part of the Public Trust Office where there were no immediate or obvious problems in terms of customer service. The NAO report clearly identified a set of issues and one of them was the fact that the index was not as user friendly as it should be. As soon as the NAO report was filed then we began the process of modernising it.

  110. The NAO report was published on 4th November 1999, by the week after Sir Hayden Phillips wrote his letter, all of this work, all 10,200 sheets of index.
  (Mr Smedley) It is fair to say that it is not the date of publication of the report but the date of the NAO alerting us to the fact there was a series of problems.

  111. How much did it cost you to do this index, give it a shake, modernise it and put it on a database?
  (Mr Smedley) I do not have that figure to hand.

  112. Do you have an estimate. I would welcome a note on the costs of doing that[6]. The rational—again it is based on your predecessors and your previous chief executive—for using that was a four digit index based on the plaintiff. What was the rational for that?

  (Mr Smedley) In most index searches four digits is a perfectly acceptable way of getting into the index. There were a number of mistakes made in the data index which meant that secondary search keys were misleading.

  113. The NAO, Figure 5, and the 1990 case, which comes under LTON, obviously they used the last four digits of the word Hamilton. Based on the fact that it is meant to be the first four letters of the plaintiffs name, can you think of anyone with the first letters of LTON at the start of their name?
  (Mr Smedley) Can I explain, it would also come under "HAM1" for Hamilton. That would potentially be a secondary search key. What the data entry people did incorrectly was having typed in HAMI they then went on to type in LTON. It is not helpful if you are Hamilton but it would not be the end of indexing, you would also be able to get it through HAMI.

  114. Would it be the case in terms of this Committee that Mr Davidson, Mr Davies and our Chairman Mr Davis would all be filed under DAVI?
  (Mr Smedley) That is right. Under the modern database it is not necessary to restrict in that way. If I could take the Chairman, he could put in in his own name in full and hopefully he would have some information of who he was suing or who was suing him. It might be Davis v Murphy.

  Chairman: It will be at this rate.
  (Mr Smedley) That would then narrow it down. Indeed, there may only be one case of that description. The modern search index is quite a powerful tool.

Mr Murphy

  115. Up until 17th, or thereabouts, of March 2000 this did not exist and poor Mr Davis has to go through Mr Davidson and Mr Davies and any other DAVI in the United Kingdom for the last 200 years on that index.
  (Mr Smedley) Hopefully there would be some recollection of the approximate date of the hearing and that would help narrow it down, also it would be in chronological order.

  116. That has answered most of my questions, based on the fact that there was a terrible situation which you now seem to have redeemed. I underline, again, Mr Williams point, that you are making a perfectly plausible explanation of how things have improved, however I would like to have the guilty parties in front of us and against it the first four letters of that person's name, which are pretty clear to everyone.

Mr Williams

  117. Sir Hayden Phillips, in the experience of this Committee when someone is allowed to walk off six months early with £38,000 of pay to come in their pockets, plus an enormous bonus it means that the Department was pretty desperate to get rid of them. Is that not the case here?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No. I made it clear to Julia Lomas that if we could not come to a mutually agreed departure I had no objection to her continuing. That would have been fine and Nick would have worked with her throughout the period, as he had up until—

  118. If it would have been fine why not get £38,690 worth of work out of her instead of paying someone else an extra £38,690 for them to do her job for that six months. Was it because it was not your money, the Departments, and it was not the Agency's money, it was the clients money, so it was not costing either of you anything to dispose of her in a quiet and discrete way?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) This is a matter of judgment. My judgment was that was I able to secure her departure on mutually agreed terms and that would mean the whole team would then be focused on the changes that had to be made. I would avoid any continuing disputes or difficulty about her position and about the way in which the future was managed. That was the judgment I took. I am happy to defend it, including the amount that was paid. I think it was in the public interest to secure a clean break and a fresh start.


  119. It is somewhat sickening, from where I am sitting, to find that two people, neither of whom stood to lose or pay a penny of this, because it was coming out of the clients money, were happily agreeing to this enormous payment. Was any gagging clause associated with her departure?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) We have an agreement which includes a mutual confidentiality clause, as is normal, as I understand it, in all such severance agreements.

6   Note: See Evidence, Appendix 1, page 15. Back

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