Memorandum by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (OM 5)
1. The Committee will take evidence from three government agenciesthe Child Support Agency, the Legal Services Commission, and the Immigration and Nationality Directoratewho between them have accounted for approximately one fifth of all complaints referred to me in the last two business years. Statistical information is in the annex to this memorandum.
2. This memorandum sets out some of the key issues that arise from the complaints I have considered.
CHILD SUPPORT AGENCY (CSA)
3. The majority of complaints referred to me about CSA continue to involve administrative delays in handling maintenance applications and failures in timely enforcement against non-resident parents who are reluctant to comply. Many complaints still date back to the early years of the Agency and show persistent maladministration over a number of years.
4. The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 introduced new measures to improve enforcement, including the use of applications to a court for the withdrawal of a driving licence. I believe that more effective enforcement of maintenance liability is a priority, as is the clearance of cases in which deferred debt for arrears has accrued through maladministration by the Agency.
5. I have been pressing CSA to improve their response times both to the original statement of complaint from my Office, and when they are asked to comment on the draft report. It would clearly be beneficial if responses were provided more quickly to help reduce the time taken to resolve complaints. I am also concerned at the length of time being taken to negotiate an appropriate level of redress with CSA, and at recent moves to tighten the application of the criteria for awarding redress.
6. The delay in the introduction of the new child support reforms has resulted from deficiencies in the IT System which have not yet been resolved. CSA have said that they are well prepared for the introduction of the reforms, and that the delay will give them even more time to get their operational business units ready. The Committee may wish to ask the Agency what steps they have taken to prepare for the transition to the new system.
IMMIGRATION AND NATIONALITY DIRECTORATE (IND)
7. Serious delay has again been the most common theme in complaint referred to me against IND. The published asylum statistics show that in the calendar year 2001 applications were lower than in the previous year and that a record number of initial decisions was made. So significant inroads were made into the backlog of outstanding applications. That is very welcome. Nevertheless, an increasing number of the complaints Members have referred to me have been from or on behalf of asylum applicants. This is perhaps not surprising when the latest published statistics, for April to September 2001, show that only 48 per cent of applicants received decisions within IND's target of two months. In general, in the cases referred to me applicants have been waiting considerably longer. IND are also failing to meet their target of giving 70 per cent of general and settlement cases initial consideration within three weeks.
8. The volume of selected cases that I laid before Parliament in March 2002 (HC 665) contained examples of other themes that have, disappointingly, continued to recur. These include the refusal of asylum applications on the grounds that the applicants had failed to return their statement of evidence forms within the 10 working days allowed. However, in a number of such cases the statements had been returned within the time limit, but IND had failed to link them to the relevant files. I have continued to receive complaints that originated in the upheaval caused by the IND reorganisation in 1998. Loss of papers and documents, including passports, mislaying of files, and failure to reply to letters from legal representatives have also again been common themes for complaint.
9. As in 2000-01, IND's co-operation and readiness to admit fault have enabled my Office to resolve the great majority of complaints by making preliminary enquiries of IND and without initiating a statutory investigation. Typically, the outcome of my Office's intervention was that outstanding action was taken after previous lengthy periods of delay, and apologies and explanations were given. Actual financial loss was reimbursed where appropriate; and IND generally showed a welcome degree of flexibility in their approach to offering financial redress. We referred 85 of the complaints received in 2001-02 to IND: only nine of them resulted in a statutory investigation because we were unable to resolve the matter through preliminary enquiries.
10. The Committee will recall that in their oral evidence on 2 May 2001 IND said that they had introduced a number of measures to improve their performance and that they believed that they had "turned the corner". However, while I acknowledge the steps that IND have put in place to speed up the consideration of cases, I remain concerned that that assessment was overly optimistic. I believe that IND must continue to search for ways of improving their performance. The Committee may wish to invite IND to offer their current assessment of the position.
11. I also find it a matter of concern that IND continue to put forward to me the view that, because delays routinely occur from pressure of work, those delays should not be held to be maladministrative. Although the volume of work in hand may well be a reason for delay, it is not a satisfactory excuse for continuing failure to meet reasonable standards of service and reasonable expectations. The Committee may wish to explore that point too with IND.
LEGAL SERVICES COMMISSION (LSC)
12. In each of the last two years just over 70 complaints against LSC have been referred to me. Complainants have generally fallen into two categories: legally aided persons who have concerns about repayment of their legal aid; and those making representations against the granting of legal aid to an opponent.
13. Last year I began to receive a number of complaints from formerly funded clients who were concerned that, when they made a payment on account, LSC had sent them a computerised account statement with incorrect information about the amount of their outstanding liability (the figure could be in error by several hundred pounds). Incorrect computerised information had also been sent to some formerly funded clients seeking a final figure for their debt so that they might pay it off in full and redeem the statutory charge on their property. I know that LSC has received similar complaints direct and have, on request, produced account details manually, but from what I have seen of the complaints referred to me, those calculations have also not been without error. LSC's computer system came on line in 1998. From the outset, it does not seem to have been fully reliable. It appears that, as a result, many people have been misled about their outstanding liability.
14. LSC tend to take the view that, as their clients are informed of the actual charge at the outset and know that simple interest is charged, they should be able to work out for themselves whether any sum quoted to them is correctwhatever the period in question (which may be years) and whatever information the Commission may have sent them meanwhile. LSC also appear to have continued to allow incorrect information to issue without alerting account holders to the possibility of errors in the sums quoted to them. I do not find that situation satisfactory. Nor am I confident that all is well in terms of the Commission getting to grips with the problem or rectifying it. In my view, it is essential for those in debt that they should be able to rely on the information the Commission provides about the extent of their liability.
15. I understand that it is intended that over the next year all such account holders will be sent an accurate statement of the charge on their property. A number may therefore receive an unpleasant surprise. The Committee may wish to ask LSC to explain their view of the situation; the numbers of people they consider likely to have been given incorrect information; the steps they are taking to put things right; and the extent to which they have alerted account holders to the possibility of inaccuracies in the information they have been sent.
16. I am also concerned that LSC frequently fail to meet my Office's deadlines for replies to enquiries and responding to draft reports. Following a number of meetings, matters have improved but not as much as I would wish. We are more generous to LSC, than to other bodies in terms of timescales. Any further delay on their part therefore has an even greater impact on the average times taken for my Office to resolve complaints. The Committee may wish to ask LSC whether they feel they are appropriately resourced to deal with complaints handling, and particularly to deal with the enquiries generated by the complaints made to my Office.
M S Buckley
Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration
14 June 2002