Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
THURSDAY 27 NOVEMBER
Q60 Mr Prentice: Very Delphic. I have
just been reading that part of your report where you talk about
the difficulty of getting information out of the Cabinet Office
and so on and you actually tell us that the problems were so severe
that you seriously considered whether you could properly continue
with the work, so you were being stonewalled by people, whoat
Ms Abraham: Well
Q61 Mr Prentice: Go on!
Ms Abraham: Yes.
Q62 Mr Prentice: I was just going to
say that nothing is going to happen to you, but it possibly will
now! So the highest level in Number 10. You mentioned the Cabinet
Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, but who were the
people? Let's name names. Who were the people who were saying
to you that it would be inappropriate and inadvisable for you
to pursue this matter?
Ms Abraham: This is a published
report and the individuals concerned are named by title in the
report, which is the convention that we use. I think it is perfectly
possible to deduce from that who they are, so this is a published
Mr Prentice: Sorry, but I just see a
reference to the Cabinet Office, and I am not trying to be difficult
here, and the Lord Chancellor's Department, but I do not see a
reference to Number 10.
Ms Abraham: We may be talking
at cross purposes. I was talking about the ministerial gifts case
which was published in the June selected cases.
Q63 Mr Prentice: So it is all there?
Ms Abraham: It is.
Q64 Mr Prentice: Great stuff. Can I move
on to something which is altogether more prosaic and that is record-keeping
by departments. You tell us in your annual report that complaints
against the Department of Work and Pensions account for a third
of all complaints, which is the first fact I want to keep in mind.
Then you go on to talk about the continuing problem of poor record-keeping
by some departments. What exactly is the problem? It should be
a relatively simple matter, keeping files and retrieving files,
so what is the problem?
Ms Abraham: I suspect the word
computer comes in there somewhere and that is not meant to be
a flippant remark. These seem to me to be such fundamental principles
of good administration that I think we are all shocked when we
see such basic things are not there. The number of occasions on
which my staff are dealing with a complainant, who says "Well,
I had a telephone conversation and somebody said this and it happened
on such and such a date" and there is absolutely no record
of that exchange having taken place, and we are faced with a situation
where the Department is saying, "Well, we have no record
but we would not have said that and anyway there is nobody called
So and So in the entire Department", trying to deal with
whether or not somebody has been given wrong information, appropriate
information, comprehensive information on the basis of no record
of that call having taken place. So they are fundamental things
and I do think that those are issues which may seem prosaic in
one sense but they do go to the heart of the Department being
able to support its own position.
Q65 Mr Prentice: Why is it that we have
to revisit this issue every year? Are government departmentsand
we can talk about the NHS laterincapable of learning?
Ms Abraham: I think that is a
very good question and it is something that obviously I am very
concerned about because if there are lessons to be learned from
the cases that my office has seen year on year, why are we not
learning in the ways that we should be. I have thought about this
in terms of our position and what it all means really about the
definition of maladministration because we have these debates
from time to time about what is the definition and what does it
include and what is the Crossman Catalogue and is there something
else, but what the European Ombudsman doesand I have always
been hugely impressed by thisis have a code of good administrative
behaviour which sets out these fundamentals, of which record keeping
you would think would be a part, but they are issues around fairness,
they are issues around courtesy, lack of discrimination, timely
responses and so on and his way of saying something is maladministration
is that it is the reverse of good administration and there is
a reference point of codified good public administration. It is
one of the things that I would very much like to pursue for my
office to perhaps get an agreementmaybe it is something
we could talk about togetherabout what constitutes good
public administration and certainly goes to the heart of this
Committee's work which perhaps the Committee/Parliament/Government
might like to adopt. It does give us a reference point and it
does make us think about learning the lessons.
Q66 Brian White: Put it in the Civil
Ms Abraham: The way it was done
in Europe, as I understand it, was the European Ombudsman developed
it and Parliament adopted it.
Q67 Chairman: We are talking about a
code of good administration?
Ms Abraham: It is a tiny thing,
it is not a huge weighty document.
Q68 Chairman: We are interested in perhaps
co-operating with you on that.
Ms Abraham: Good.
Q69 Mr Prentice: Is it just computers
that cause the problem or are there problems with paper records?
Ms Abraham: There are problems
Q70 Mr Prentice: Would it shock and surprise
you if I told you that the Department of Work and Pensions has
no record of any minister or permanent secretary visiting one
of the 55 or so file stores around the country where records are
kept on citizens, attendance allowance, all the records kept by
the state and we have not had a minister or permanent secretary
visiting one of the sites? Would that surprise you?
Ms Abraham: No, little surprises
me I have to say.
Q71 Mr Prentice: I was going to say would
this surprise youbut clearly it would notthat the
Department of Work and Pensions has no method of counting files
lost in file stores? They do not know if files are lost, does
that surprise you?
Ms Abraham: It does not surprise
me but it is shocking.
Q72 Mr Prentice: I think it is disgraceful.
Ms Abraham: I do thinkand
we started with this word prosaicthis is fundamental to
good administration. It does concern me. We are looking now at
cases coming inissues around tax credits, issues around
child support reformswhy is it that the big public service
providers have not got to grips with the fundamentals of record
keeping and IT systems. These things can be done. I suppose if
my office was pulling out lessons to be learned over the years,
I think there is probably a catalogue of these sorts of issues
that we could perhaps shed some more light on.
Q73 Mr Prentice: Do you see it as part
of your job then to go back to the Department for Work and Pensions
and say to them, "Why is it that there is no consistent counting
of files lost in your file stores"? Who is reported to be
responsible for this? Have you thought about the consequences
of Joe Bloggs out there waiting for attendance allowance to be
told that the file has disappeared into the ether and the situation
cannot be resolved? Do you see it as part of your job to have
Ms Abraham: I think that what
we do is we use the evidence from the complaints that we see to
feed back to government departments. In the same way as the Annual
Report makes reference to poor record keeping we would say that
this is something which features regularly, it does not seem to
be getting any better. The tax credit case that I was looking
at this week was a situation where this very distressed man had
had five award notices in as many weeks about his award. He was
absolutely terrified that he was being overpaid. He could not
get any sense out of anybody. He tried to make phone calls but
could not get through. He finally did and it was one of the classic,
"I had this telephone conversation, `Oh, no, you did not,
we have no record of it'." These sorts of situations are
making it a huge impact on people's daily lives and causing a
lot of distress. It is about getting the fundamentals right. Yes,
there is a big role for my office in the fundamentals of good
Q74 Mr Prentice: Do the departments have
Ms Abraham: I do not know the
answer to that.
Q75 Mr Prentice: It would be good to
find out if there are designated people in key departments responsible
for tracking files to make sure that they do not disappear into
the ether. What about the NHS because I am told also that the
Department of Health does not have information on files holding
clinical dataso we are talking about important files hereon
patients that have gone missing either temporarily or lost. The
Department of Health says it is a matter for each NHS trust and
strategic health authority, that they are legally responsible,
and they go on to tell meand this is from a parliamentary
answerthat independent authorities such as the Audit Commission,
the Health Service Commissioner and the Information Commissioner,
oversee the Government's arrangements and impose sanctions where
there is significant failure to comply. My question is this: has
that ever happened? Have sanctions ever been applied to an NHS
trust or a strategic health authority because crucially important
files, clinical data, have gone missing and no-one knows where
they are? Has that happened?
Ms Abraham: I am not aware of
any specific case where a sanction was imposed because of the
absence of a file. What I can do is go back and check whether
there have been any specific instances of that and write to you.
What I would say is that the quality of record keeping is an issue
on health cases as well. Sometimes that is about records not being
comprehensive, sometimes it is about them being illegible. My
general view about records which are not there is that the complainant
gets the benefit of the doubt. I am never impressed with an answer
which says, "Well, it would have said this if we had recorded
Q76 Mr Prentice: They do not get the
benefit of the doubt if there is a neurological scan which has
Ms Abraham: Of course not.
Q77 Mr Prentice: The poor unfortunate
has got brain cancer which is not diagnosed as a result. As a
constituency MP I get this sort of thing, not frequently but regularly,
MRI scans which disappear, clinical data which disappears. I just
want to know if this is pooled together somewhere. The Department
of Health does not collect the information but what about these
other bodies, the Audit Commission, Health Service Commission,
Information Commission, do they pool together this information
about clinical data which has disappeared because I think it is
a matter of huge public interest?
Ms Abraham: Certainly it is not
something that we would do systematically, I cannot speak for
the Audit Commission or any of the other bodies.
Q78 Chairman: Going back to the previous
question I asked you, which maybe you could reflect upon and express
an opinion about, to follow Gordon's line of questioning, if this
turns out to be a huge issue with these consequences then I think
it would be quite proper for you to say, "I think there is
a problem here which between us we need to try to sort out"?
I think that would be added value to your role?
Ms Abraham: Yes, indeed. It goes
to the heart of good public administration.
Q79 Chairman: As we end, can I ask just
a couple of final things. One comes out of that last exchange.
The Government loves league tables. The only place it does not
like them is in relation to government departments.
Ms Abraham: Yes.