Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)

MR PETER WRENCH, MR DOUG SMITH AND MR STEVE ORCHARD

THURSDAY 20 JUNE 2002

SIR MICHAEL BUCKLEY, Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and MR ALAN WATSON, Deputy Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, in attendance.

Mr Prentice

  140. Can I come in on that point. Fluttering above the Foreign Office, not very far from here, is an Investors In People flag. Is your organisation flying the same flag?
  (Mr Smith) It does, certainly. We were the first organisation to achieve accreditation on Investors In People on the new standard so we do take investment in our people, in training and development very seriously indeed. That is part, in a sense, of the over-compensation, we do invest a lot in training.

  141. What about the other two Departments?
  (Mr Wrench) Yes, we have secured accreditation during the last year as well. I would not express concerns about the quality of the people we have got. I think we have done very well in the recruitment that we have done over the last two years in bringing in some pretty high calibre people. The problem on our side, I think, is in large part to do with the volumes of input we are facing. For example, in the last financial year, while on the non-asylum side of the house we were able to increase decision making by 15 per cent on the general immigration side, and on nationality by 14 per cent, the number of applications went up by 22 per cent and by 35 per cent. You can have as good a system as you like but if you are pouring more and more cases into it, it is not going to be able to cope.

  142. Why would anyone with a life want to join your Department?
  (Mr Wrench) I think there are any number of reasons why people would want to join the Department.

  143. Very challenging.
  (Mr Wrench) I think it is a job which is of vital importance to the nation, without wanting to be pompous. I think people recognise the significance of the work they do both to the public and to the individuals they are dealing with. These are fundamental life decisions we are taking.

  144. There is a lot of churning and turnover in the organisation?
  (Mr Wrench) Absolutely, but without being glib there is a challenge there that luckily a lot of people want to respond to. We are succeeding in drawing in good quality recruits.

  145. Even at the very top?
  (Mr Wrench) As you know, there is a competition under way at the moment to select a new Director-General.

  146. How much do we need to pay to get the right person?
  (Mr Wrench) We shall see.

  147. It is a serious question.
  (Mr Wrench) Yes, but I am not pessimistic about the outcome of that competition.

  148. I am not going to get any more from you on that.
  (Mr Wrench) No.

Chairman

  149. The chap who has departed, Mr Boys Smith, when he came to see us a couple of years ago said that he thought that they had—to quote him—"turned the corner".
  (Mr Wrench) Yes.

  150. You have found some more corners.
  (Mr Wrench) The corner is turning out to be longer than we had anticipated. This is partly to do with the increase in input that I have described, the volume of new cases coming in. And, partly because when Stephen Boys Smith spoke to you last year we had a false impression of how well we had done in getting the asylum backlog down. Some months after the last session we were in the difficult situation of having to announce that the backlog was actually higher than we had anticipated, having done a full reconciliation of a manual count with our previous records. As I say, we have been achieving record levels of output. Our staff have been doing better than ever before but against a backdrop that was actually gloomier than we thought it was 12 months. And it has also got worse recently in terms of numbers of new cases coming into the system.

  151. That is interesting. I think the general point coming out of this is you are seeing it rightly from the point of view of people running the system, somehow you are telling us about your staff and volume and so on, and we come at it from the other end, what is the effect of all of this on people who use your services and people who complain about them to the Ombudsman. If I can quote to you quickly what the Ombudsman says in his memorandum to us on that problem, the fact that he finds the maladministration in any number of cases, because of the situation you described, he says he finds a matter of concern that "IND continue to put forward to me the view that, because delays routinely occur from pressure of work, those delays should not be held to be maladministrative. Although the volume of work in hand may well be a reason for delay, it is not a satisfactory excuse for continuing failure to meet reasonable standards of service and reasonable expectations." What he is really saying there is the fact that you have routinely maladministration is not an argument for saying therefore this is not a specific case of maladministration. Do you see what I mean?
  (Mr Wrench) Obviously I understand the point but I think if you take what Stephen Boys Smith said to the Committee last year, it was not just wild optimism—against a backdrop of what we had achieved by that point and against a backdrop of the investment we had made. I think what he said was that we were now staffed to handle the work in a steady state. I am afraid the steady state just has not materialised. Things have been made more difficult for us in the last year by the volume of new cases that we have had coming in. Yes, it is quite reasonable for the Ombudsman to say if there is that increase in volume either you should bring more staff resources in or change your systems so you can cope with that new volume, and we are trying to do both, but there is inevitably a timelag in responding to unforeseen major increases in workload.

  152. You cannot give us a similar "turning the corner" ray of hope this time, can you?
  (Mr Wrench) I think I would say that I would draw encouragement from the fact that we are achieving record levels of output and we are making progress towards hitting our targets for timeliness and for getting a grip on the caseload. At a time when there is this volatility in the numbers, particularly on the non asylum side but also asylum numbers have gone up in the last quarter, it is a difficult environment that we are operating in.

  153. On the CSA side it is not a question of an explosion of new demand, it is a number of questions, is it not, including, centrally, the move from one kind of system to another system which has now been delayed because the computers are not up to it?
  (Mr Smith) That is correct.

  154. That seems to me to be putting up all kinds of problems in terms of trying to run two systems—an old system and a new system—and the scope for maladministrative outcomes in that is obvious, is it not?
  (Mr Smith) Yes. I suspect the main difficulty we will find is that as we migrate cases from the old system to the new system it will be the cases, for whatever reason, which have lapsed over the years and been suspended which are effectively now reactivated as we move into the new system. Understanding how we are going to treat and deal with those and, crucially, how we are dealing with the complaints arising from early contact is something we have been in early contact in Sir Michael's area with our own independent case examiner. We have started to build our own systems to handle. That is the main focus and concern for us.

  155. When is it thought now that the new system is going to come in?
  (Mr Smith) We are not in a position to announce a date yet. The Secretary of State indicated in March that he would make a further statement when he was confident that the testing of the new IT system had progressed sufficiently to permit him to announce a date.

  156. Any kind of idea what we are talking about? Can you give us a season?
  (Mr Smith) Testing is continuing. Until we have an outturn from the testing from EDS, who are building the system for us, it is not possible to offer any advice to ministers when they can make a further statement. It is not a question I can answer immediately.

  157. Let me just have one more go—colleagues will want to come in I know—on the Legal Services Commission. Here we are told you are not providing routinely accurate information to your customers about what they owe you.
  (Mr Orchard) Yes, in one element of our business, which is the statutory charge, which is probably the most complicated or certainly is the most complicated area of our business. This is due to the fact that the functionality in the overall corporate information system which deals with the statutory charge is not reliable. This came to my attention in detail in January 2001. The issue for me at that time, and over the next few months, was what exactly to do about it. There were some possibilities, various possibilities, and I had to make a judgment about what was the optimum approach. The judgment I made, in the light of the circumstances at the time, was that we had to rework the functionality in its entirety. There was very little to be gained, and it was higher risk to address bits of it in order to put pieces right, and that is the approach we have adopted. That has caused a lot of problems but in my judgment the problems would have been greater if we had done any other course. We are in a position now where we have completed the system test on the entirety of the new functionality, and we are over 80 per cent through user acceptance testing. To give you some idea of the complexity involved, we had to recruit real experts, some in-house, some consultants, to deal with the complexity of that functionality. The system test gave us 200 bugs which had to be fixed before we could go into UAT and UAT has thrown up 64. The fact we are over 80 per cent through gives me a degree of confidence that we can move fairly swiftly to put it right.

  158. The Ombudsman is critical of you for not telling your customers that the sums you are quoting to them may turn out not to be accurate.
  (Mr Orchard) Yes.

  159. Why do you not just write to them and tell them about these problems and say "Look, we may have given you duff figures"?
  (Mr Orchard) What we do is actually stop sending out a lot of figures. For example, the annual statement, we were able to stop that as one of the interim measures we could take. What we could not stop—and it was one of the options I considered in the early days—was the sending out of a statement after a payment was made. The system generates automatically a statement if somebody pays off a part of a statutory charge. There is nothing which says those statements are automatically wrong, some of them will be right, some of them will be wrong, and it is part of the problem we do not know which is which at the point those statements are generated. It was a judgment which I had to make about whether we concentrated on fixing that, and there was no guarantee at the time that we could fix it effectively without obviously affecting other parts of the functionality. Therefore I took the view that we would go back to square one, stop digging in other words and try and sort out the totality of the system, and that is what we are on the brink of doing.

 


 
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