Examination of Witness (Questions 80 -
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001
80. Yes, that was going to be the question I
was going to ask. It cannot be the easiest job in the world running
the Benefits Agency, I have to say, so you do come in with a certain
sympathy on our part. At the same time we have lots of people
knocking on our doors complaining about you. Over 25 per cent
of Ombudsman complaints comes from the Benefits Agency, is that
a figure you think is just inevitable given your size of organisation?
Do you think it is going to get better?
(Ms Cleveland) I think it is inevitable that we will
always provide the largest number, and I think it is always inevitable
that there will be complaints that come through. We are trying
to actually make it clearer to people what their routes are for
dealing with complaints, and the sort of complaints procedures
we are putting in place. Personally I see every case that gets
referred to the Ombudsman as a failure on our part, and ideally
I would like to do the Ombudsman out of a job in relation to benefit
claim. I do not think it is realistic to assume that he is actually
81. Let me ask this: the DSS has now set up
it own internal complaints system?
(Ms Cleveland) Yes.
82. If it works well is that not going to meet
(Ms Cleveland) I think there are two types of complaints
that we have. One is actually about benefit entitlement, the decision
that is actually taken about whether someone is entitled to benefit
or the amount of benefit, or the period for which benefit is paid.
Those are the types of decisions that get referred to the Appeals
Service. We have a separate internal complaints section which
actually looks at the things that would be referred to the Ombudsman
about the way we have handled a case, rather than the amount of
benefit that has been put in place. So there is a very clear divide
about what is the realm of the Ombudsman and what is the realm
of the Appeals Service.
83. I accept that, but if you get your internal
systems in good shape you would then expect fewer complaints to
go to the Ombudsman, would you not?
(Ms Cleveland) I would expect fewer complaints to
go to the Ombudsman and fewer appeals to go the Appeals Service,
84. So you do not have to be bleak and say:
"Oh, there will always be this volume", these developments
may produce some improvements?
(Ms Cleveland) I would hope they would. It is really
about the gateway into the Ombudsman and whether there will be
a lowering of the threshold as we improve service.
Chairman: I was just trying to be cheerful,
85. Just following up on that, if I may, you
say you provide the largest number, yet one of the criticisms
that the Ombudsman makes is that quite often the cases that he
gets are resolved fairly quickly and an apology issued. Does this
not show really that you should have sorted that out before it
got to the Ombudsman, if it could have been resolved that quickly
with an apology and an appropriate payment if that was deemed
necessary? Why did you not do it straight away?
(Ms Cleveland) I think some cases come through and
MPs refer them directly to the Ombudsman, so they do not actually
come through us in the first instance, but you are right, you
are absolutely right. Our target ought to be that if a complaint
is made we sort it out then and there.
86. I saw you behind the witnesses over there
in the public gallery when we were interviewing the IND, but I
wonder if I could just have your views on their response to my
question about payments of benefits which people would have been
entitled to had they not had a delay in the sorting out of their
(Ms Cleveland) I will give you a completely personal
view because I do not want in any way to commit my Secretary of
State. My completely personal view is that actually if people
have a benefits entitlementand there is an issue about
the sort of support they get under the new regulationsthat
actually it is appropriate for the Benefits Agency to pay benefit
and if there are arrears of benefit. If there is an element of
redress for the delay to that benefit, then that I do not think
is appropriate for the Benefits Agency to pay if the delay has
been caused outside our remit.
87. I understand what you are saying there.
Just one last point. There are quite often tight timetables for
people to make claims for benefits and yet there seem to be quite
long periods you allow yourself to make decisions on those claims.
I appreciate they will get paid the backlog from the date of their
application, but we are talking about people who are quite often
in fairly desperate circumstances and can get into debt and all
sorts of problems. Is there not a strong case for you tightening
up quite substantially the time you take to make those decisions?
(Ms Cleveland) Clearly we want to clear claims as
quickly as possible, but I think some of it does come down to
perhaps the issue we were touching on previously about quality
and timeliness, and I have to say
88. Sorry, the quality of your staff?
(Ms Cleveland) Quality of the decision making, making
sure that people are actually getting their full entitlement to
benefit and that we are actually making those payments accurately.
Accuracy of payments has been quite a serious issue for the Benefits
Agency. In fact, after ten years this is the first year we will
actually have hit our accuracy targets. I personally believe that
it actually takes less time to do it right than it takes to do
it wrong if you actually look at all the rework that you get into
the system. We are doing a lot of workvery much for this
year our focus in the Agency has been about two things: one is
performance improvement generally, and that is mainly focusing
first on accuracy, but I do not believe that necessarily means
cases do have to take long to clear; the other is perhaps equalisation
of performance across the country, because we do have quite big
variations in the levels of performance in the service that people
get, depending on which office they deal with. So that has been
very much a focus on our delivery. The work that we have done
there is very much feeding into the way we are designing business
processes and customer relations for the new job centre plus and
pension service agencies that will replace the Benefits Agency
and ES from later on this year and into next year.
89. I want to concentrate on the answer you
made in regard to the SEMA group when you said that an increasing
number of complaints about medical examination by the doctors
were coming through. In particular, one of my roles in Parliament
is the Chairman of the All Party Group on ME. I found it quite
disturbing that the vast majority of benefit claims with ME failed
the medical tests, but the vast majority of them succeed in their
appeals. This certainly gave me an indication that somewhere along
the line there was a fault with the medical examinations. I was
led to believe last year this had been resolved through the SEMA
group, that the doctors being employed had an understanding of
this particular illness and it would improve. So I am saddened
to see that indeed even the Social Security Committee have actually
raised problems with this. Do you see this as a particular problem
in other areas, because I certainly see this as a major problem?
Can you resolve some of the complaints to get it right first time
(Ms Cleveland) I think quite clearly we get a lot
of information back from the Appeals Service and we are doing
a lot of joint work with them at the moment because there are
lessons to be learnt. It is very expensive to start involving
the judiciary in decision making. It is bad customer service to
actually take that forward. I have to say that management of the
SEMA contract and the medical evidence part of it is outside the
control of the Benefits Agency. It is run as part of the DSS,
rather than within the Benefits Agency. We are fully involved
with a programme of work. The Department has actually appointed
someone to review the end-to-end process. There has been new issue
of medical guidance to SEMA from the Department, and they are
taking a different approach to training their doctors. SEMA are
now paying doctors for training sessions whereas they did not
in the past. So there is a lot of activity going on to actually
improve the quality of the medical decision making. It is not
just the conditions. It is also people understanding what the
medical is for, because it is not a diagnostic medical. From some
of the evidence we get back, people are expecting the medical
to be very similar to a medical they had which was actually for
diagnosis. Our doctors accept the diagnosis, and what you are
looking at is how does that condition impact on your ability to
perform certain functions.
90. I would have to say that in these particular
cases the doctors probably do not accept the diagnosis, and therein
lies a particular problem. Although I was given an assurance,
as I said, that all of the doctors employed would accept that,
that did not seem to prove the case. To take it a stage further,
how are you going to measure this, apart from the fact that the
appeals, presumably in terms of numbers, will be a lot lower than
in the past? Are you looking at it on a monthly basis?
(Ms Cleveland) The training on medical evidence on
ME was one specific thing that went out. I cannot remember when
that was. I thought it was more recently than perhaps the previous
evidence. It is monitored through the Department's contract management
group about the training of doctors to ensure that they have actually
had all the adequate training when it is coming through. We actually
monitor the appeals back through our liaison with the Appeals
Service. That is the way that I can pick up information. It is
one of the issues that comes through in terms of complaints that
I get from members of the public as well, several issues that
come up. Race is another onerace and genderwomen
who want to be seen by a female doctor, and people from different
ethnic backgrounds thinking that doctors are insensitive to perhaps
their own religious circumstances. So we are looking at all those
things at the moment.
91. The Ombudsman drew attention to the question
of how changing legislation is used as an excuse by the Agency.
Indeed, the Annual Report went further in saying that in the course
of his investigations the Ombudsman found that the Agency had
used a change in legislation as an excuse for administrative shortcomings.
He has mentioned this on a number of occasions and obviously it
is a matter of concern to him. Can you say something about that,
(Ms Cleveland) I think if there is legislation then
actually that is the legislation we should be implementing. I
think actually it is ensuring that when we are looking at policy
and designing the legislation we design something that can be
92. Do you have an input into the legislation
which will help in that process?
(Ms Cleveland) The Department of Social Security went
through a major reorganisation over the last year which has split
the work more along client groups. One of the difficulties we
have at the moment is that we have systems which are very much
benefit focused. Of course, when you start trying to deal with
an individual as a customer there is a lot of running around that
the clerical staff have to do to ensure that they get a coherent
service. The Department is now looking to focus services in three
main client groups: for children, for people of working age and
for pensioners, and cutting across those is also extra cost of
disability. I, personally, sit on the board that looks at policy
for working age and for pensions, and some of my senior operations
managers sit on those for disability and for children.
93. We saw the possible effects of changes in
legislation when we were looking at SERPS. It amazed us that there
was no mechanism in the Department to ensure that changes in legislation
were advertised to people who had to implement them at the sharp
end. Do you feel confident that that is better now, that a mistake
of that proportion could not occur again?
(Ms Cleveland) I am a lot more confident about that
now. The people who have got responsibility for the legislation
also now have responsibility for reviewing the leaflets and ensuring
that they are completely consistent, not just with today's legislation
but with future changes. The most obvious parallel to SERPS is
the changes in pension age which come in. There has been a thorough
review of all the leaflets to ensure that they do fully reflect
the positions so that people do know well in advance. The other
thing that we have which is a continual problem for us is ensuring
that all our staff are aware and we have in the past been very
much dependent on paper based systems. If you think about the
number of changes that there are in legislation over the course
of a year you end up with clerks having to deal with wads of paper
inches thick every time there are changes, because it is changes
about how you deal with the IT as well as information you might
give to customers, which is why we have been very keen to actually
put far more of our guidance in our bulletins on to an intranet,
which we are rolling out across our offices, so that the office
itself does not have to maintain its own guides any longer because
we were reliant on sending out information. Take income support,
for example, it was 14 large ring binders full of guidance that
you then had to rely on a clerk updating and people looking at
before they gave information.
94. I was certainly very surprised how old-fashioned
the technology system had been for some years and how very difficult
it was to get the news down to people who were sitting at a desk
from Head Office. You say something is rolling out? Is it rolling
out fast enough?
(Ms Cleveland) We now have intranet access. I hesitate
to say this is at every single site because I think there may
be one or two where we are about to give up the building because
of licences or tenancies with landlords. The vast majority of
buildings now have access to an intranet so that they keep one
copy of their guidance on that.
95. This is a building rather than each member
(Ms Cleveland) It is not yet each member of staff.
In the bigger buildings it is one on every floor. We are aiming
for one between ten and 20 staff. Our plan over the next two years
is to completely replace the PC infrastructure that staff use
at the front line, which will then actually give them access to
the bulletins, the guidance. It will allow us, if we have to send
out urgent messages, we can use that facility targeted on the
type of work they do.
96. Is that in the budget?
(Ms Cleveland) Yes.
97. Can you be confident that you will get these
machines at the right time?
(Ms Cleveland) Yes.
98. I am very pleased to hear it. Can I ask
you this: in your internal complaints procedure how are you learning
the lessons which the Ombudsman may be suggesting to you?
(Ms Cleveland) If we start with the Ombudsman cases,
I do have a dedicated team that work with the Ombudsman's office,
and after every case we look particularly at lessons learnt for
the office concerned about that and whether there is any remedial
training needed, but also, if there are wider lessons that need
to be learnt, we turn that into a bulletin and we send them out
to staff. Now we send them out on the intranet as well. So we
do try and learn the lessons from each of them, particularly if
we end up with the same problem arising again.
99. You seem to be a very good thing. Could
I just ask you finally, this discussion we had with the IND people
about this business of agencies and here you are an agency and
they are not. Why are you?
(Ms Cleveland) There was a target to create agencies.