Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) (CS 1A)

INTRODUCTION

  In light of evidence presented at the Select Committee hearing on the 2 July 2003 the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) have been asked to supplement our original submission.

GENERAL COMMENT

  PCS are concerned the impression was created at the hearing that CSA staff were as significant a constraint on the Agency's productivity as the problems with the IT system. PCS totally disputes this. We were very disappointed to hear the Chief Executive's comments about staff failing to adapt to a new culture, which implied CSA staff were in part responsible for current problems with IT. Until the new IT is working properly it is very difficult for our members to provide a satisfactory level of service. CSA staff did not design or develop the new IT system. CSA staff did not design the inadequate training material and do not control the volumes of cases. It is absolutely unjust to blame CSA staff for the Agency's problems.

  It cannot be underestimated just how low morale is amongst CSA staff, and how pressurised life on a New Client Team is at present. Incredible pressure is being placed on staff by what many feel are unrealistic targets. Staff are being held individually accountable for meeting these targets. They are made to say how many cases they have cleared, and are likely to clear, every day, and when they fail to achieve the target to give reasons why. This is unacceptable pressure, bordering on bullying, for such low paid staff. The result is high staff wastage rates and increased sick absence (up 30% as of June 2003). Many middle managers are complaining of similar pressure being placed on them by having to justify the performance of their teams. The basic fact remain that the IT problems are preventing staff from achieving the productivity that is expected of them.

  PCS believe that the Chief Executive understated the problems with the new IT by describing them as just "early teething problems". This shifts the blame onto the staff rather than focusing on the real problem of IT. The thrust of our original submission on the IT issues remains valid. The IT is still not working properly. The Chief Executive admitted to losses of productivity of up to 30% due to IT problems. He also confirmed that due to problems with the IT there is no immediate prospect of converting existing customers onto the new legislation. These are major problems and go far beyond what could reasonably be described as "teething problems".

  PCS welcomed the Chief Executive's praise for the phenomenal achievements of CSA staff in meeting targets, but this public acknowledgement does not reflect the day-to-day treatment frontline staff. The unremitting pressure to meet ever-increasing targets is not conductive to creating a supportive working environment.

  Staff are looking for clear assurances that the necessary system improvements will take place and that the pressure on them will ease as a result. Equally they want assurances that the staffing reductions, proposed for 2003-04, will not happen. With the problems the Agency is facing PCS believes it would be disastrous to embark on staffing reductions at present. We therefore hope and expect to see the change control request on staffing, identified in the oral evidence, leading to more not less staff.

DIFFERING VIEWS AT SELECT COMMITTEE

  Having heard the Child Support Agency's evidence at the hearing in July, it is clear that some of the detail contained within the original PCS submission has been challenged by the Agency. There appeared to be four main areas of disagreement, which we will attempt to clarify here.

    —  The first one concerned the slow response times on the new IT system. PCS claimed it took "hours rather than minutes at times" to move between screens on the new IT system. The Agency challenged this view. PCS included this complaint in our submission because it had been raised by our members on many occasions since the IT went live in March. The latest information suggests that this specific problem is less bad then it was in the first few weeks of the new system. It would be rare now for it to take over an hour to move from one screen to another. However, the general point about the failings of the IT system, and the problems associated with slow response times, remain valid. The Chief Executive confirmed in his oral evidence on 2 July that the Agency was losing 25 to 30% productivity due to slow response times. This is still a major issue and is adversely affecting our members' ability to do the job.

    —  The Agency also denied our assertion that the IT system was designed to have cases handled by several different caseworkers as they were progressed. PCS accept that the system is "designed" to allocate cases to one caseworker. However the point we were making is that, whatever the design of the system, the practice is that the IT system does frequently move cases from caseworker to caseworker, outside the control of staff, for no apparent reason. It was therefore a mistake on our part to include the word "designed" in our original submissions, but the point we were making remains valid.

    —  There was also concern over the large fall in new cases that were coming over from Job Centre Plus. At the time of writing our submission PCS looked at the number of new cases the Agency was receiving compared to the same time last year. It seemed to us that the large drop in intake was a result of a backlog of cases in Job Centre Plus and well-documented problems with the Job Centre Plus interface. This also fitted in with anecdotal evidence we were receiving from colleagues in Job Centre Plus that CSA cases were being treated as low priority in some areas. However CSA management have access to large quantities of management information from both CSA and Job Centre Plus which PCS do not. As a result we can accept the explanation for the drop in intake that was provided by CSA to the Select Committee.

    —  One final point of accuracy concerns the issue of low pay. PCS stated that the majority of CSA staff are paid less than £13,000 per year. CSA said that the actual figure was actually £12,500 per year. PCS accept management's figures are accurate. But this serves to demonstrate how badly paid most CSA staff are for the very difficult and pressurised job that they are asked to perform. PCS welcomes the assurances from the Chief Executive about reviewing the pay and grading of CSA staff and we intend to work in partnership with them to secure a satisfactory outcome. However we strongly believe that the problems of low pay and the related problems of high staff wastage will only be solved by paying CSA staff a substantial increase in basic pay.

CONCLUSION

  PCS welcomes the financial penalties being imposed on EDS for their failure to deliver an adequate computer system, and realise that much of this money will be used to help improve productivity within the Agency. However we also feel that at least some of this saved money could be spent on extra pay for our members who have had to suffer the consequences of the failings of EDS. We also welcome the Select Committee's decision to investigate IT across the Department for Work and Pensions and would seek to contribute to that investigation.

  On the issue of performance, PCS agree that CSA's performance between now and March 2004 needs to be monitored to see if the Agency's prediction that productivity will outstretch intake becomes reality. PCS is sceptical that the Agency's performance will improve to this level in one year. We are concerned that currently the only way to achieve this would be by demanding even higher targets from staff who are already close to breaking point.

  Only time will tell whether CSA will meet the bold predictions of the Chief Executive regarding productivity, but if this push for increased productivity places even further pressure and stress on PCS members, without the long-promised improvements in the IT system, we remain very sceptical that they can be achieved.

8 August 2003


 
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