Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)

MR JOHN STOKER AND MR SIMON GILLESPIE

WEDNESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2001

  20. Within the legalities I would hope that possibly when the Committee, and obviously it is a collective decision, comes to consider our report we will give whatever support we can to you in that ambition because it seems an entirely logical one, certainly to me. Now I am afraid we move to slightly more critical things. I only received this morning, and it is my fault I did not open the envelope, my colleagues probably received this earlier, a report from the Independent Complaints Reviewer.
  (Mr Stoker) Yes.

  21. And she refers to complaints now against you yourselves. We will first of all deal with that and then I will let you deal with complaints against charities. As far as you yourselves are concerned, we are told that they have carried out and completed investigations into 59 allegations of maladministration against your organisation—I do not know how far back they go, there has been a backlog I assume—of which 16 were fully or partially upheld. That is over one in four and that is somewhat worrying. Are you concerned about it? How could it reach this proportion?
  (Mr Stoker) Yes, I am concerned about it, Mr Williams. I think you have to see it in context which is that this is the slice of complaints against the organisation which it cannot or has not succeeded in resolving according to its own internal procedures. This is the fine end of what in itself is not a huge number of complaints given the numbers of bits of casework we do every year, which as you will have seen from the report is well over 40,000 and we are talking here about double figure complaints. The trend so far is that about 30 per cent of the Independent Complaints Reviewer's findings are partly or entirely upholding complaints. Within those there is 20 per cent, in other words two-thirds of the 30 per cent, which on experience so far have been acknowledged and, where appropriate, rectified and apologised for through internal procedures, so it is really only the ten per cent on top that have not been addressed by internal procedures.

  22. I gather that there are still 30 complaints undergoing investigation.
  (Mr Stoker) Yes.

  23. If the same proportion applies there, and there is little reason to suspect it will be different, it will mean another eight cases of maladministration held against you bringing the total to 24, which is quite considerable however many cases you are handling.
  (Mr Stoker) One is too many, Mr Williams. When we actually introduced the Independent Reviewer last year there was a certain amount of unease about what would follow for the organisation. What we have found is that it is a process which enables us very much to learn lessons from what has gone wrong in the past so we can diminish the chances that the same things will go wrong in the future. In that report the Reviewer herself does say that she feels we have actually been quite quick and quite eager to learn those lessons and to feed them back into our casework.

  24. That is fair enough and it does commend your responsiveness and the speed with which you have responded when they supported criticisms against you. Now let us look briefly at your procedures. I think all of us will think in constituency terms and people with complaints against the Benefits Agency, the CSA and so on, more often than not pick up the phone rather than write a letter because many people do not like writing letters, many people do not feel confident articulating their concerns in letters. I understand if someone phones in you require the complaint against yourselves to be put in writing. Does this become an excluding process? I think of elderly people, people who lack literacy, people who do lack knowhow, people even from ethnic backgrounds with linguistic difficulties. Does this not put an unnecessary obstacle in their way?
  (Mr Stoker) That is certainly not the intention, Mr Williams.

  25. I am not asking if it is the intention. I am sure it is not the intention but I know what it is like sitting across a desk from a constituent who can hardly speak any English and you are trying to fish out information. The idea that they could go away and write a letter explaining their problem is just beyond sustenance.
  (Mr Stoker) The point at issue and the purpose of asking for a complaint in writing is simply to have certainty for the organisation that you know what it is that you are dealing with. One of the features that struck me from looking at the back catalogue, as it were, of Commission's complaints cases was that complaints are sometimes hard to pin down, they do change and they do develop, when complainants receive an answer that they do not welcome they shift their ground. The intention in asking for it in writing is purely so that we know what it is and it cannot actually continually develop in a kind of circular direction, no more than that.

  26. We now have a follow-on product arising from that which is, as we understand from the briefing we received from the NAO, most complaints, in fact, are made by telephone - and that we understand, but then it goes on to say that the Commission does not record all of the complaints received and, as yet, reports only those received in writing. This leaves an enormous gap in your accountability to us and to the public and, indeed, in relation to your statutory duties if we do not have this sort of information. Why do you not try to get that information, try to collect it? You have got the information, why do you not try to record it?
  (Mr Stoker) I think the difficulties very much are simply with knowing what is a complaint. A passing comment from somebody on the phone who has had a frustrating morning trying to find something out from a number of sources, for example, would be something that ideally I think we would capture and we would score as a complaint so we could keep a line of numbers. The kind of complaint we would expect to have in writing is really one where there is not an expression of dissatisfaction as such in isolation but somebody who is pursuing something that they want changed or put right or that they want an apology for. In a way I think that we are comparing perhaps oranges with apples but I agree with you that we ought to, if we can, find

  ways to count both at least.[1]

  27. As you are both new to the post and cannot be held responsible for things that have gone wrong before, could I suggest that you go away and consider the possibility of running a pilot scheme on this for a while to see whether there is any useful information as to how you might modify your procedures that could be obtained as a result of recording all complaints and not just reporting on those which are written? I am not asking you to commit yourself but will you go away and consider it?
  (Mr Stoker) Yes, I am quite happy to go away and consider that.

  28. Okay. I must be running near the end of my time and colleagues watch very closely that you do not run 30 seconds over because you run into someone else's time. There are some complaints which the Independent Reviewer is not even allowed to look at and these cover statutory decisions which give you a rather absolutist power if they cannot be examined. Also you have introduced, and I understand why you have to have some sort of cut-off date, a rule that complaints that are not referred within three months of the completion of your internal complaints procedure are then ruled out of date. Three months seems rather early. People can be ill, a lot of people are ill in hospital for fairly long periods and many of these may indeed be involved with various charitable bodies. Three months seems rather arbitrarily brief. How did you arrive at it and are you open-minded or is it your decision to reconsider it? Who decides what the ICR should look at?
  (Mr Stoker) It is basically, I think up to us to decide. Yes, we can actually vary that. I am not conscious of it having been a difficulty during the pilot although I am aware that some people would like the whole procedure to be much more radically retrospective than that.

  29. Do you have records of cases that have been turned down because they are out of time?
  (Mr Stoker) Yes, we do.

  30. Do you have them to hand or would one of your advisers sitting behind you have the figures, or have a ballpark figure? If not, could you put it in a note to us.
  (Mr Stoker) I do not have it to hand but I would be happy to put in a note about how out of time the out of time refusals have been.[2]

  Mr Williams: To my regret my time is up but thank you very much and my apologies, again, for having to dive out.

  Chairman: Thank you, Mr Williams. David Rendel.

Mr Rendel

  31. Thank you, Chairman. Am I right in saying, Mr Stoker, that you have been doing some sort of a consultation on the status of sport as to whether that should be of charitable status?
  (Mr Stoker) Yes.

  32. Has the consultation been completed?
  (Mr Stoker) It has, yes.

  33. What are the results of that?
  (Mr Stoker) We are announcing the results on Friday, Mr Rendel.

  34. So you do not want to tell me now because it will spoil your press release?
  (Mr Stoker) It is linked to other Government Departments' announcements so it is a bit difficult to go into too much detail. The consultation which we carried out envisaged some expansion of the recognition of charitable status in the direction of sport which effectively promoted health, and I expect that, broadly speaking, that will be the kind of announcement we will be making. The other point is that a great deal of sport is already charitable, either because it is concerned with young people and education or because it is concerned with meeting special needs.

  35. The second general question is what are the restrictions on a charity running a business of some sort? Obviously a lot of charities run shops but they may run other businesses too to make money. What are the restrictions on that, particularly if they are nothing to do with their normal charitable purpose?
  (Mr Stoker) The basic restriction on that is where there is a commercial activity which is not connected to the primary purposes of a charity our approach is basically to require it to be carried on separately. You can have a business which is set up effectively for the purposes of a charity as a separate entity which is then able to covenant its profits back with tax advantages to the charity itself. The separateness of the operations is very important from the point of view of accountability and transparency.

  36. Thank you. I do not think I quite understand that. Are you saying that any business, if it says that all of its profits will go to charity, can then run as one body or has to run as two bodies in some way?
  (Mr Stoker) No, the business can run as one body, it is just that if you have a charity and a business they have to run as two bodies. If you think of it in terms of, for example,—

  37. If, for instance, you had a trust which was going to give all of its money to whatever charity it chose but, for example, owned a large amount of land on which it rented offices or whatever, then would that be run as one business or two?
  (Mr Stoker) It all depends on the relationship with the charity that gets the money, Mr Rendel.

  38. I am suggesting that there is a trust that gives out money to whatever charity it wishes to give money to.
  (Mr Stoker) A trust of that kind could itself be charitable and might not need to have a separate structure at all. It could also own land and other property and if it owned those as investments rather than as some kind of component in a business that would not necessarily require a change in structure.

  39. If it wanted to develop that land it would then have to have a change in structure, is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Stoker) It would depend quite a lot on the circumstances. It would depend on the basis of the interest that the bodies had in each other and vice versa. It is a little difficult to deal with in isolation but I would be very happy to look at any individual case you have in mind.


1   Note by witness: Since the start of November 2001, the Commission, on a trial basis, has begun recording the number of complaints made by telephone and cleared by operations staff. The published guidance on making complaints says that people can make a complaint by telephone, or by asking to speak to the Customer Complaints Manager. Back

2   Ev 18, Appendix 1. Back


 
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