Select Committee on Public Administration Third Report

The Worst Offenders

19. The Ombudsman also named the organisations which had a poor record in dealings with his office. In respect of record keeping Sir Michael said "One of the easiest areas in which you can save costs is record keeping. Departments have given record keeping low priority from then [the 1980s]".[24] He added "the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) has an appalling record in losing files and failing to associate them. We have had 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". His deputy, Mr Alan Watson, added "The Legal Services Commission will be a prime candidate in this field".[25]

20. When asked who were the worst offenders in delayed responses to the Ombudsman's requests for information, Mr Watson said "I think the Child Support Agency (CSA) would be probably at the top of the list in that respect... Customs & Excise have been particularly bad at giving information in recent times, although we are only talking about small numbers. They often do not respond at all within the time limits which we specify". He added that "the average length of time for Departments to reply to that [draft reports], to actually get the case finalised and issued to the referring Member, is at the moment 62 days, which is awfully long time to check out facts and respond to our recommendations".[26]

21. The Ombudsman named organisations which are particularly difficult in providing redress to complainants. Sir Michael told us that "I am afraid with CSA cases it is not difficult finding that there has been maladministration. There usually has been".[27] In a memorandum to the Committee Sir Michael said "Many complaints still date back to the early years of the Agency and show persistent maladministration over a number of years". adding that "I am concerned at the length of time being taken to negotiate an appropriate level of redress".[28] Despite the number of cases, Sir Michael told us his office had been in "protracted discussions over redress" with the CSA. His memorandum to the Committee also cited similar problems with Customs & Excise and the Legal Services Commission (LSC).

22. The trends identified by the Ombudsman in his both annual report and in evidence to the Committee, we believe warranted further investigation. In the last two business years three government agencies—CSA, IND and LSC—accounted for one fifth of all complaints referred to the Ombudsman. The Committee took evidence from representatives of each of these three agencies, and detail our findings below.

The Child Support Agency

23. The Child Support Agency CSA is an executive agency of the Department for Work and Pensions and is responsible for running the child support system which was introduced in 1993. In his evidence to us Sir Michael said "the administrative system is just so complicated and candidly, so badly run".[29] He added that deficiencies in IT systems had resulted to delays in introducing child support reforms.

24. In response to the Ombudsman's criticisms, the Chief Executive of the CSA, Mr Doug Smith, provided some rather alarming evidence. Forty per cent of CSA staff are under thirty, a third have been with the agency under two years and half of its staff earn less than £12,500 per annum. Mr Smith said that "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". he added "the staff profile is not ideal for dealing with the profile of the cases we are handling...therefore we have a heavier reliance on our systems being right".[30] It would appear that there would be some correlation between the low salaries offered by the CSA and both the lack of experienced staff and the high turnover of fourteen per cent.

25. Mr Smith admitted that the CSA was over-reliant on its systems, yet the Ombudsman remains concerned that the new IT system might not be fit for its administrative purpose. When the CSA was created it bought a system 'off-the-shelf' which Mr Smith described as "rather archaic" which "qualifies for entry in a heritage museum". In 2000, a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) agreement was made with the private company EDS to provide a new system to support the new Child Support Reforms. However, the delivery of that new system was delayed and the CSA has had to put up with "the somewhat inflexible existing system".[31]

26. Sir Michael told us that there were few cases where his office had failed to reach an agreement on redress with the CSA, but "the problem is sometimes it takes too long". He added "The starting point of all our cases, when we are talking about redress, is there has been maladministration. Therefore, the onus is very much on the Agency which is guilty of maladministration to take a reasonably flexible and generous view of what most is appropriate to put that right".[32] Sir Michael also said that the lack of an established payment pattern "is not a valid argument for saying that there is an obstacle to paying redress". He added "there is evidence that the Agency could have been more flexible and more imaginative".[33] Mr Smith told us "The key points I have drilled into my people consistently are where there is maladministration, where there is error, you apologise, you put things right, and you need to consider redress".[34] He added that he did not think the CSA was "inflexible" but there were sometimes questions about whether a case falls within the Treasury rules, and that as Accounting Officer for the CSA he was accountable to Parliament for all its expenditure. Mr Smith said that he had changed the redress system by insisting that the rules were applied consistently across the CSA and any divergence was routed through him as chief executive, who has a degree of flexibility. We are pleased that the chief executive has taken that corrective action and will monitor progress.

The Immigration and Nationality Directorate

27. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) is part of the Home Office responsible for immigration control at air and sea ports and considers applications for permission to stay, citizenship and asylum in the UK. IND underwent major organisational change in 1998. In his memorandum to the Committee the Ombudsman commented that "serious delay has again been the most common theme of complaint" and that administrative problems arising from IND's reorganisation in 1998 still remain, including the loss of important documents (among them passports), mislaid files and failure to respond to letters. Sir Michael said that the rising number of complaints concerning asylum applicants was "not surprising" given that IND failed to meet its own internal targets for consideration and decisions. Some applications for asylum were refused on the grounds that applicants had failed to return their statement of evidence forms within the ten day deadline. However, in some cases, the statements were returned in the time, but IND failed to link them to the relevant file. In his memorandum, Sir Michael welcomed the steps taken by IND to speed up their consideration of cases and their greater flexibility when offering financial redress. However, he was also concerned 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".[35]

28. In February 2000 the then Director of IND, Mr Stephen Boys Smith, said in evidence to us that he believed they had "turned the corner".[36] In May 2001 Mr Boys Smith believed IND has "made considerable progress", but admitted on having "had a lot of difficulties".[37] The Deputy Director of IND, Mr Peter Wrench, told us in June 2002 that "the corner is turning out to be longer than we had anticipated"[38] He attributed the problem to "a false impression of how well we had done in getting the asylum backlog down" and to the increased volume of work coming in: "you can have as good a system as you like but if you are pouring more and more cases into it, it is not going to be able to cope".[39] He added "we are trying to hit a moving target both in terms of volume and in terms of customer expectations". [40] While we acknowledge that IND's workload has increased, we share Sir Michael's view that this is no excuse for bad administration. Staffing at IND has doubled over the last three years, to some 10,000 people, and Mr Wrench assured us that all the staff were committed to IND: we expect this commitment to extend to the service they provide to the public.

29. When IND was reorganised in 1998 it was intended that a computerised case working system would replace the existing paper-based one. Mr Wrench told us that to pay for the new system, and because the computers would be doing the job, the number of case workers would be "run down". However, "the system did not materialise, the case load was going up, we had fewer case workers to deal with it".[41] Mr Wrench commented "I think IND and the Home Office had an over-rosy expectation of what the system was capable of delivering and the timescale for doing it".[42] Since then IND have used IT and people to build a system incrementally, which Mr Wrench admitted "has produced less dramatic benefits than might have been achieved".[43] This is an important issue across government. Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, commenting on an IT scheme for magistrates' courts said that "up-to-date contingency plans should be in place on all major contracts so that there is a fallback position if it goes wrong".[44] It would appear to us that rather than being just 'an over-rosy expectation', the decision to get rid of experienced case workers before a system was in place verges on administrative negligence. In the current political atmosphere surrounding the question of asylum such mistakes can have especially unhappy consequences.

The Legal Services Commission

30. The Legal Services Commission (LSC) is an executive non-departmental public body of the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) created under the Access to Justice Act 1999 to replace the Legal Aid Board. It is responsible for the development and administration of the Community Legal Service and Criminal Defence Service, which replaced the civil and criminal legal aid systems respectively. Complaints concerning LSC received by the Ombudsman generally fall into two categories: legally aided persons with concerns about repayment of aid, and the granting of legal aid to an opponent. LSC's computer system, Corporate Information System (CIS) was introduced in 1998. Sir Michael told us "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". In addition to incorrect computerised information, manual accounts have errors. LSC expected their clients to work out their repayments based on the actual charge at outset and continued to issue incorrect information without alerting account holders to the possibility of errors. "I do not find this situation satisfactory" was Sir Michael's response. He was "also concerned that LSC frequently fail to meet my Office's deadlines for replies to enquires and responding to draft reports".[45]

31. Although it was introduced in 1998, faults in CIS were not discovered until 2001. Mr Steve Orchard of LSC told us that the government's policy to create a community legal service was "heavily focused, if not entirely focused, on the reform programme. There is no doubt that there was not the same attention as there would otherwise have been... on the core business".[46] He added that it was the most complex aspect of the system which had let LSC down.

32. Of the dubious statements that LSC continue to send out, Mr Orchard told us "some of them will be right, some of them will be wrong, and it is part of the problem we do not know which is which at the point those statements are generated".[47] He added that because the system could not be fixed without affecting other parts of the system he had decided to continue until a complete solution could be found.

24   Q 107 Back

25   Q 109 Back

26   Q 120-3 Back

27   Q129 Back

28   OM 5, HC 563-iii  Back

29   Q65 Back

30   Q139 Back

31   Q163 Back

32   Q166 Back

33   Q170 Back

34   Q171 Back

35   OM 5, 563-iii Back

36   Session 1999-2000, HC 106, Q170 Back

37   Session 2000-01, HC 62-ii, Q30 Back

38   Q150 Back

39   Q141 Back

40   Q134 Back

41   Q163 Back

42   Q165 Back

43   Q163 Back

44   Session 2002-03, HC 371 Back

45   OM 5, 563-iii  Back

46   Q160 Back

47   Q159 Back

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Prepared 26 February 2003