Reducing errors in the benefits system - Public Accounts Committee Contents


2  Identifying why and where errors occur

8. The persistence of error is due to long-standing issues that have yet to be fully resolved. The Department's 2007 strategy on error reduction and the Government's subsequent 2010 strategy on fraud and error highlighted some of these recurring issues, such as the complexity of the benefits system and inadequate support to staff.[20] For example, the 2007 strategy noted that staff guidance was often difficult to access, a problem we found still exists today.[21] Similarly, the 2007 and 2010 strategies both identified the need to introduce formal skills accreditation.[22] Another long-running problem that has not been addressed is that IT systems have not been designed from the perspective of the user.[23]

9. The Department has made some progress in improving the data it collects to help it understand why errors happen. For instance, it told us it had managed to cut down the number of categories it uses to code errors from over 600 to 60, which has resulted in simpler and better data on the reasons for errors.[24] To improve its understanding on when errors occur, the Department carried out a systematic review in 2009 of the data recorded for each error code. It estimated that fewer than one in four errors were likely to have occurred when a customer originally applied for the benefit. Most happen when a customer is required to report a change in their circumstances.[25]

10. Nevertheless, the Department conceded that it had not 'tortured' the data it collects to develop a full understanding of where and why mistakes happen, and it could make better use of other sources of information.[26] Analysis of calls to internal advice lines, for example, would indicate the types of difficulties that processing staff were experiencing, as well as which local offices were having particular problems.[27] Jobcentre Plus told us that it has started to examine the calls made to its advice lines, but only limited management information is available so far.[28]

11. Measures to prevent mistakes occurring are an important part of overall efforts to reduce error. Until recently, however, prevention has been accorded less emphasis than other fraud and error activities, such as detecting illegitimate payments.[29] It is difficult for the Department to recover overpayments, so it makes sense that the Department focuses on preventing errors from arising in the first place.[30] The Department told us prevention is 'absolutely key' and one of the 'fundamental things' it wants to change about its approach to tackling fraud and error.[31]

12. A large proportion of the cost of overpayments as a result of customer error comes from a relatively small proportion of claimants and preventative measures, such as risk profiling, can be effective in identifying which customers are more likely to make mistakes.[32] The Department introduced such risk assessments for Housing Benefit in 2003 and Income Support in 2010, but has yet to extend these to all benefits.[33] However, the Department told us it now plans to introduce risk profiling to all its benefits.[34]

13. Quality assurance checks are an important way to detect and prevent error. Checks may be conducted both before and after payments are made to verify their accuracy, although the Department's agencies currently vary in how they carry out such quality checks. The Pension, Disability and Carers Service has a national team to carry out accuracy checks, comprising staff independent from local offices; Jobcentre Plus, on the other hand, relies on checks conducted by staff drawn from local offices. The independence of the Pension, Disability and Carers Service's checking arrangements is designed to ensure high levels of quality and consistency.[35] Jobcentre Plus has accepted the desirability of implementing independent checks, and consequently made a commitment to us that it will introduce an independent tier of quality checks by April 2011.[36]



20   Department for Work and Pensions, Getting welfare right: Tackling error in the benefits system, January 2007; Department for Work and Pensions, Tackling fraud and error in the benefit and tax credits systems, October 2010 Back

21   Qq 74, 79, 97; Department for Work and Pensions, Getting welfare right: Tackling error in the benefits system, January 2007, para 3.36 Back

22   Q 81 Back

23   Q 82 Back

24   Q 62 Back

25   Q 182; C&AG's report, Reducing losses in the benefits system caused by customers' mistakes, para 2.5 Back

26   Qq 3, 68; C&AG's report, Reducing losses in the benefits system caused by customers' mistakes, para 2.6 Back

27   Qq 103-104 Back

28   Qq 74, 104 Back

29   Q 182; C&AG's report, Reducing losses in the benefits system caused by customers' mistakes, para 2.13  Back

30   Q 182 Back

31   Q 188 Back

32   Qq 187, 188; C&AG's report, Reducing losses in the benefits system caused by customers' mistakes, para 10 Back

33   Qq 184, 203; C&AG's report, Reducing losses in the benefits system caused by customers' mistakes, para 19 Back

34   Q 203; Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC, Tackling fraud and error in the benefit and tax credit systems, October 2010 para 12 and 5.2 Back

35   C&AG's report, Minimising the cost of administrative errors in the benefit system, paras 16, 3.11 Back

36   Qq 110-114, 118-120 Back


 
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