Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)|
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 organisationI do not know how far back they
go, there has been a backlog I assumeof 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
(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
(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
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
(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.
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
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
(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
Mr Williams: To my regret my time is up but
thank you very much and my apologies, again, for having to dive
Chairman: Thank you, Mr Williams. David 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
(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,
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
(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
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
(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
(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
Ev 18, Appendix 1. Back