Examination of Witnesses (Questions 132-139)
MR PETER WRENCH, MR DOUG SMITH AND MR STEVE ORCHARD
THURSDAY 20 JUNE 2002
SIR MICHAEL BUCKLEY, Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and MR ALAN WATSON, Deputy Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, in attendance.
132. Can I call the Committee to order and welcome our witnesses this morning from the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, the Child Support Agency and the Legal Services Commission. The reason why we have invited you to come is because in our role as keeping an eye on the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman's reports between you you have figured considerably in the reports of the Ombudsman in the last year or two and therefore we wanted to, I suppose, see what you have in common and see what was happening, and see how we might put some of it right. That is really the thrust of what we are about. I wonder if any or all of you would like to say something by way of introduction? Nothing at all?
(Mr Wrench) No.
133. Just want to confess, do you? Throw yourself on the mercy of the jury. Well, that is quite a good strategy. What I want to know, though, in a sense is what you all have in common? I would like you just to reflect upon that between you in answering. If you are bits of Government which seem to cause particular problems for people who use the services and therefore people complain and therefore people who come to the attention of the Ombudsman and therefore to the attention of us. Is it possible to think between you as to what it is that you might have in common which will produce that consequence? Who would like to kick off on that? Mr Orchard?
(Mr Orchard) I suspect the one thing that we all have in common is computer systems. Apart from that I suspect we all deal in areas of legal complexity, probably with very vulnerable members of the public. I would be pushed to take it beyond that at this stage but that is actually quite a lot.
134. Let us ask the other two if they would like to chip in.
(Mr Smith) I was about to say all our computer systems do not work particularly well, certainly that is a feature of the Child Support Agency. The common feature I think I would like to answer most is that I think we all deal with individuals at a particularly emotionally difficult stage of their lives, emotionally sensitive stage of their lives. Certainly that is a major feature of Child Support Agency work, we are dealing with difficult situations. Taking the commonality feature forward, I think there is a huge need for a particular sensitivity in the treatment of the individuals that we are handling, possibly over and above that which is required by the large agencies.
(Mr Wrench) Obviously I would share the point about IT systems. Our well known difficulties with our planned IT system contributed to the fact that IND was, as an organisation, in a very deep pit three years ago, and we have been gradually trying to claw our way out of that. I think for us a crucial factor over the last two or three years, as we have tried to improve and get better, has been that we have been having to do that against a backdrop of increasing demand for our services and, quite naturally, increased expectations of the standards that we ought to be trying to achieve. We are trying to hit a moving target, if you like, both in terms of volume and in terms of customer expectations. I suspect probably that has some equivalence in the other organisations but obviously I cannot speak closely for them.
135. We have got computers, we have got vulnerable individuals and we have got increased demand.
(Mr Orchard) And legal complexity.
136. And the complexity, yes. If we trotted in some more bits of Government do you think they would tell us the same kind of things? Do you think it is just distinctive to your organisations, these factors you have advanced?
(Mr Smith) I have relatively little experience elsewhere in Government. I came to this job from the Inland Revenue. Certainly some of those characteristics would be apparent in Revenue. I think that from my observations whilst in the Child Support Agency each of them are more extremely featured within the Child Support Agency than in my previous role. The IT systems support less and are more inflexible. We are dealing with people who are always at a particularly sensitive and emotionally fraught stage of their existence. Mixing complexity with people at that stage in their lives is far worse than I saw in the Inland Revenue. Certainly expectations of the Child Support Agency are probably higher than I saw in the Inland Revenue.
137. What the Ombudsman finds is this thing called maladministration. He does not just see organisations which have various pressures on them, because many organisations have pressures on them, but he finds on a large number of cases maladministrative outcomes. That is to do with systems not actually processing the business properly, is it not?
(Mr Smith) I would venture it is to do with systems and people.
138. Yes. You emphasise people more than systems?
(Mr Smith) I think I would, yes.
139. So you have not got the right people?
(Mr Smith) If you look at the staff profile, certainly in the Child Support Agency, a large number of our people, probably approaching 40 per cent, are aged under 30. Around half are being paid less than £12,500 a year, a third have been with us less than two years. A number of them lack some basic life skills which permit them to deal with the sort of cases we are doing optimally without significant investment of training which is difficult to live with in the sort of time frame we are talking about. Whilst we have put a number of initiatives in place to try and ensure people do deal with people effectively, the staff profile is not ideal for dealing with the profile of cases we are handling on a week by week basis, therefore we have a heavier reliance on our systems being right and essentially we are checking systems to make sure we over-compensate, in a sense, for the staff profile we have.
Chairman: That is fascinating, I think, the idea that because of the kind of staff that you have, you have to have a system which compensates for the staff. You can see why that is going to open up all kinds of difficulties. I accept what you are saying. When I saw an advertisement recentlyI forget what the job title wasin the CSA, I saw these salaries of £12-13,000 a year, I was not surprised that my constituents were having endless problems in getting their CSA cases sorted. It is pretty frightening when you say that we have to have systems which compensate for the inadequacies of our staff.