Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)

THURSDAY 27 NOVEMBER 2003

ANN ABRAHAM

  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, who—at Number 10?

  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 report now.

  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 departments—and we can talk about the NHS later—incapable 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 does—and I have always been hugely impressed by this—is 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 agreement—maybe it is something we could talk about together—about 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 Service Bill?

  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 with both.

  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 you—but clearly it would not—that 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 think—and we started with this word prosaic—this is fundamental to good administration. It does concern me. We are looking now at cases coming in—issues around tax credits, issues around child support reforms—why 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 that discussion?

  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 public administration.

  Q74 Mr Prentice: Do the departments have records officers?

  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 data—so we are talking about important files here—on 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 me—and this is from a parliamentary answer—that 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 it".

  Q76 Mr Prentice: They do not get the benefit of the doubt if there is a neurological scan which has gone missing?

  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.


 
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