Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 80 - 99)



  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 under threat.

  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 that problem?
  (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, yes.

  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, really.

Mr Turner

  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 case?
  (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 entitlement—and there is an issue about the sort of support they get under the new regulations—that 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 work—very 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.

Mr Wright

  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 round?
  (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 one—race and gender—women 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.

Mr Trend

  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, please?
  (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 delivered.

  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 of staff?
  (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.

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