Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)
SIR MICHAEL BUCKLEY AND MR ALAN WATSON
THURSDAY 21 MARCH 2002
100. Or poking their oar in?like Sir Richard Wilson.
(Sir Michael Buckley) I will emulate Sir Richard and not comment on that!
101. I thought you might do that.
(Sir Michael Buckley) I will be a little more frank: I mean, I used to speak fluent Mandarin but I have lost the habit and I tend to revert to English! We do have difficulties, for example, with some departments, simply because staff have changed and they do not understand the system. They do not provide us with what we need, not because they are trying to be obstructive but because they do not understand, so I do not think there is an issue which would be addressed by legislation here.
102. That is not what I asked. What I am trying to get to the bottom of is that, if we need to have formal powers for the Ombudsman to be able to do his job, their job, your job, surely one of the biggest problems we have is trying to get the information out of these departments. I take "Because people change" as a very bad excuse for you being able to get what you want.
(Sir Michael Buckley) Ultimately, we do. Sometimes we have had to hit very hard, sometimes we have had to wait much longer than we would have liked, but I think I can say pretty well without exception that we have always managed to secure the information that we have needed. Of course, if it leads to delay and obstructiveness, then we would bring it out, but one then says, "What is the right solution?" I do not think there is any obvious solution to foot-dragging or tardiness in finding the files. Again, I think it is a matter of bringing this out into the open and, reverting to what we were saying earlier, this is an area in which, if I may say so, the Committee can be helpful because I think you can give the government departments concerned a hard time and in public.
103. That is what we are coming to, is it not? It is the powers as MPs, because, if we do not reply to a constituent, we soon know about it. We do not get the excuse, "I am sorry, we have changed jobs." Surely, at the end of the legislation, whatever comes out, you are going to be dreadfully disappointed, are you not?
(Sir Michael Buckley) No, I do not think so. One of the areas in which I would not criticise the 1967 legislation is the powers that it confers on the Ombudsman to secure information. The formal powers are fine. I think one ultimately comes back to the question: How far should an ombudsman, who is going to be an unelected officer without any sort of democratic mandate, be allowed to stage dawn raids, operate as if he were a High Court judge in putting people into jail for contempt of court or whatever? I do not myself think that that is appropriate. What I do think is right is that the Ombudsman should be able to bring these points out in public for the legislature to call the executive to account.
104. Across Whitehall are there people in the departments responsible for liaising, dedicated link people to discuss matters that are referred to the departments by the Ombudsman?
(Sir Michael Buckley) Yes. Not necessarily in every department, but what Alan described as our main customers, or, as I prefer to put it, our main suppliers, all do have units (Focal Point, Viewpoint and so on), yes.
105. Are there people in the departments who are responsible for record keeping? In your memorandum which you circulated to us you tell us that it is of increasing concern that there is poor record management by departments, so are there dedicated individuals?
(Sir Michael Buckley) YesI mean, pretty well every department will have its own departmental records officer.
106. Why are they so useless?
(Sir Michael Buckley) That is a long story.
107. Give us the short version.
(Sir Michael Buckley) I will give you a short version. There was a lot of pressure, from the 1980s onwards, on running costs. One of the easiest areas in which you can save costs is record keeping. Departments have given record keeping low priority from then.
108. Kevin mentioned league tables in the context of what other countries are doing. What about league tables here in Whitehall? You mention Immigration and Nationality, and that department would have particular problems just because of overload, but who are the poor performers and the good performers?
(Sir Michael Buckley) In which area? In record keeping?
109. In record keeping.
(Sir Michael Buckley) Certainly IND has an appalling record in losing files and failing to associate them. We have quite a few difficulties with the Benefits Agency, not because they lose records but because frequently their records did not happen in the first place. They do not, for example, keep records of a telephone conversation with important consequences. Alan, you may want to add something.
(Mr Watson) The Legal Services Commission will be a prime candidate in this field, I think, and probably the Lord Chancellor's Department as well, the court service in particular. They would be the next two that I would target for any questions the Committee might want to put to Departments.
110. You would think that where Departments have computerised, that would help in locating correspondence. Is that the case?
(Sir Michael Buckley) Frequently not.
(Mr Watson) When the computers work properly, the answer is yes, but all too often, thinking of Immigration, Passports, and National Insurance record keeping, there have been tremendous problems in getting the computer systems up and running properly and retrieving information from those systems.
(Sir Michael Buckley) Indeed, the whole record may be lost. Certainly the National Insurance contribution records were badly affected.
111. This is interesting. How much information has been lost or corrupted because the computer systems have failed to work properly, or the people have not been trained to use them?
(Mr Watson) It is almost impossible to answer that. The National Insurance record system is probably the prime example of this, where it was impossible to retrieve a lot of data, and the Inland Revenue, who have taken over the record-keeping, have had to mount a major exercise to establish people's records and to decide what rates of pension they are entitled to.
112. Is this National Insurance numbers or much more than that?
(Mr Watson) It is contributions recorded under National Insurance numbers.
113. Can I ask you about DEFRA? In your opening statement you said there was a rise in complaints about RailTrack and also DEFRA. I have just had a look at your latest report, which takes us up to September 2001. The foot and mouth outbreak hit in February last year. What has happened since September 2001?
(Sir Michael Buckley) Perhaps I should begin by saying we were quite surprised that we did not receive more complaints about compensation for foot and mouth, or about the whole way in which the outbreak was handled. We received a large influx of complaints, mainly from one Member, in early February, about 100 cases. We are still analysing those cases. A surprisingly large number of them, however, do not seem ever to have been put to the Department itself, and our normal practice, of course, is to say, "You must at least try and sort it out with the Department before we will investigate." But it is surprising that we have received so few cases.
(Mr Watson) About four or five months ago I had a meeting with officials from DEFRA to talk about foot and mouth and the likely impact on the Ombudsman's Office. At that time they themselves had something like 3,000 complaints, but they were working through them, albeit at not a very fast rate, and we have kept in touch with them since then, monitoring their own complaint handling process. We have a further meeting with them on 3 April to try to devise a strategy as to how to handle this latest batch that we have received and what action the Department themselves might take on that.
114. How many are we talking about? You say there was a batch from one Member.
(Mr Watson) We have about 130 from one Member. I think it came from a radio programme, which resulted in lots of complaints coming to the Member.
115. From his or her own constituency?
(Mr Watson) Yes, they are all from Cumbria, although we have a smattering of cases from other parts of the country as well.
116. I ask the question because I recall the Secretary of State saying some time ago that the Department or the GovernmentI cannot remember whichhandled the foot and mouth outbreak very welladministratively, I suppose. I just wanted to get your reaction.
(Mr Watson) It takes quite a long time for complaints to come through the system to us. In fact, we have not completed any investigations yet.
117. You do not have a feel for the categories in which the complaints lie?
(Mr Watson) We are still analysing this large batch which we have received. A lot of them are complaints relating to levels of compensation, which would also be outside the Ombudsman's jurisdiction, and about government policy on foot and mouth, which would also be outside jurisdiction. What we really need to get at are the things within jurisdiction and separate those from the things that we cannot look at, things like the way in which a vet has corresponded or dealt with individual farmers, carcasses being left rotting for an undue length of time, and this sort of thing. In this meeting we will have on 3 April we are going to try to pursue what the Department themselves have been doing, what sort of categories these cases fall into, and how they intend to approach resolution of the complaints. At the same time, there have been a number of cases going through the courts, which we also need to take account of and see what sort of rulings have been made and how that will impact on the cases we have on hand.
118. I have a constituent who had to wait for six months for payment for work that had been done. I took it up with the Department and I was told that payment was made to the prime contractor, and it was up to the prime contractor to pay the subcontractors. My constituent thought he had a contractual relationship with the Department. He had done the work, but had to wait for ever to be paid. I am just wondering whether this was an isolated case or whether it is happening all over.
(Sir Michael Buckley) It would be out of my jurisdiction, I am afraid. It is a contractual matter. You see what I mean about the jurisdictional problem. Again, there are many aspects of the foot and mouth affair which, rightly or wrongly, have certainly caused considerable public concern. The whole question of the modelling of the epidemic and so on. My Office can only look very much at the micro end, how individual farmers or others, taking a case which would be within my jurisdiction, have been treated. We cannot look at these wider issues. It is important to bear that in mind.
119. Can I return to the question of departmental delay and timescales. In response to Gordon, you said there seemed to be linked groups in each Department dealing with yourselves. That would suggest to me, and hopefully to all of you, that there would be some type of continuity in the system.
(Sir Michael Buckley) Yes. Departments do vary significantly in their speed of response. It is not always a function of whether or not there is a dedicated unit within the Department to deal with that. They have their own problems, because they have usually had to go out to a local office or child support centre or whatever to get the information. It ought to be better among those Departments which do have dedicated units.