Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-199)



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


  180. Very, very helpful. Would you like to say a word?
  (Mr Wrench) I agree with all that has been said there and I am grateful for the recognition of the complexity of many of the cases we deal with. I think the answer is not to introduce more rough justice but to introduce a better streamlining of systems filtering out which are the complex cases and which are the straight forward ones. Yes, asylum cases in particular can be extremely complex but some are not. For example, we can have a case of somebody coming from Poland or the Czech Republic or another Eastern European country who makes an application for asylum and when asked why says because they want to work in the UK. "Are you being persecuted?" "No". It is quite easily dismissible. At the other extreme you can have cases which involve hugely complex allegations, we need to weigh an awful lot of evidence and build through it in a number of stages. What we want to do is to have a system which can recognise the straight forward ones quickly and get them out of the way. Certainly that applies on the non asylum side where some applications are extremely straight forward. A student might have been in the UK for 12 months already and wants to go into a second year of their degree course, it is a very straight forward thing to say "yes" to that. We need to get better at pulling those straight forward cases out and saying "yes" very quickly and reserving our capacity for longer case work to those cases that merit it.

  181. Mr Smith?
  (Mr Smith) In a sense ministers have dealt with the issue of complexity for CSA with a new legislation, the entire basis for child support, in the year 2000. We will have a more straight forward mechanism for calculating child support based on a percentage formula attached to net income. Whether that is seen as rough justice or appropriate justice time will tell, nonetheless it will remove the complexity of the current child support formula and replace it by a relatively transparent easy to follow system.

Sir Sydney Chapman

  182. When this new system comes in, and we do not know yet when it is going to, let us hope sooner rather than later, do you think it will lead to a reduction in the complaints?
  (Mr Smith) I think it will lead to a reduction of complaints on the basis on which we are receiving complaints currently. My worry is it will open a different basis of complaints. One area of concern is clearly that our customers will find the proposed formula is rough justice and that could give rise to further complaints, not around maladministration but around the application of the policy itself.

  183. My final question, Chairman, with your permission is about staff. I very much appreciate what you have said on what is a very difficult and perhaps delicate subject for us to raise. Could you tell me, in comparison with other organisations, is your staff turnover much greater and, secondly, doubtless you will tell us you could do with more staff but are your present staff levels up to the establishment level, I think that is the right word to use? If you would like to comment on that, that would be very helpful to us.
  (Mr Orchard) My staff turnover is about 20 per cent although it does vary. My staff level, we do not operate in a sense of a complement. We have just had a peer review or a comparative study done by Customs and Excise on the staff we use on contracting and they concluded that we needed a maximum of 528 staff, we are managing this year on 450. I would expect to bring that down over a period of time by the use of a simple risk based approach of who you audit and who you do not, who you prioritise and who you do not. In terms of the overall quality, I would say that the staff of the Legal Services Commission are of excellent quality. We are very lucky in that we can recruit direct from the street and by implication have to pay market rates. We invest a lot in the recruitment process and in training. I am constantly losing senior managers to bigger and better jobs, sometimes in the public sector, sometimes in the private sector, and I welcome that because it attracts other good people into the organisation. I have no complaints at all about the quality or the numbers of staff. We can always do with more in particular areas at particular times but overall I have no problem with the current situation.
  (Mr Smith) In the Child Support Agency the nature of the job produces a level of commitment that I have rarely seen around the place. People are genuinely committed to delivering a high quality service. Our Staff Attitude Survey last year said something like 94 per cent of the staff were expressing a commitment to delivering a high quality service. What they find frustrating is that they are constrained in delivering that service by the obsolescence of the current IT systems and the capacity of the current legislation in the Child Support Agency so that the quality of the people and their commitment is not in doubt, it is breaking out of the current arrangements which the new legislation and the new IT system will permit us to do which is the key issue. The turnover currently stands at around 13/14 per cent which is a little higher than I wish it, not hugely higher, but perhaps better reflects the age range profile of the staff that we have got. We have a large number of people who would not naturally see Government or the Child Support Agency as a lifetime career but see it as a stepping stone either to other employment or to full time education.

  184. Mr Wrench?
  (Mr Wrench) I am afraid I can not give the turnover figure off the top of my head. We are in a particular situation having grown so rapidly over the last three years; we have now got over 10,000 people in IND as a whole and that is virtually a doubling in three years. I would echo the points made in relation to the CSA in terms of the commitment of the staff to doing well and the commitment to the organisation; that has been replicated in staff surveys that we have done. I think we face a particular challenge over the next year or so with that bulge of new recruits who have been in for a couple of years, retaining their enthusiasm and motivation and ensuring that we can develop them. I will go back to the point you made earlier about Investors In People and the importance of building on the good habits that that process has inculcated to make sure that we do bring on our people and continue to make the best use of them.


  185. It is interesting that when we were challenging you earlier on about the problems with your administration none of you said "Oh, well if only we had more staff, more money, then all would be well". None of you has said that.
  (Mr Wrench) Can I say it now? I think there is an objective case for increasing staff in IND, simply looking at the volume of caseload that I described earlier. Obviously resourcing decisions remain to be taken in the current spending round but my position would be that there is a strong objective case for further reinforcement.

Mr Prentice

  186. I take it, Mr Orchard, that the flag is flying over your bailiwick and you have the Investors In People award?
  (Mr Orchard) We have not for the whole organisation. We have got it for the Nottingham regional office. We have got, also, ISO 9000 and we are an accreditation agency, accredited by UKAS. There was a decision to be made as to whether we should go for IIP as another badge but we have followed the process that has been used in Nottingham, which has that IIP, but not gone to the trouble of getting the accreditation for the whole organisation. That decision has been revisited at least twice in the last five years.

  187. There is no guidance from central Government that it would be a good thing for all Government Departments and Agencies to get the Investors In People accreditation? It is left to individual departments?
  (Mr Orchard) I do not see how it could be imposed on an organisation.

  188. No, I am saying go for it, not that you would get it.
  (Mr Orchard) I mean impose that we should go for it. No, we have taken the decision not to at this stage.

  189. Can I just pick up a couple of points that David made about computer systems because someone somewhere is responsible for designing the specification. Mr Orchard, you told us earlier that your system had one and a half million lines of code for goodness sake. Did you get any advice from elsewhere in central Government about the type of system which might be appropriate or did you dream up, in consultation with the IT specialists, this system which was introduced?
  (Mr Orchard) It was obvious that it had to be designed in-house, there was no way we could buy the sort of system we needed off the shelf, given the range and complexity of what we were trying to systemise. Certainly we have examined other systems in terms of equal complexity rather than anything that is directly relevant to us. We set up the usual and traditional structure of a steering board, project board, project managers, etc. and then we got on with it.

  190. I am not trying to be impertinent here but your in-house people were up to the job, were they?
  (Mr Orchard) No, we did not have enough in-house people of the right sort of quality to do it. We had the managers at a senior level but we had to bring in contractors for quite long periods of time, individual contractors not a contracted company, not under PFI, we were bringing in individual contractors who we were paying on a contractual basis. It was a mix, the management was ours, the developing staff and the systems testing staff were a mix of employed staff and individual contractors. As I said overwhelmingly the system went in and has been working.

  191. It is very, very difficult for a lay person like myself—you hear the tales of computer complexity—to do anything other than just pull my hair. What I am trying to get at if these are system breakdowns which are systemic should central Government have a team of top class computer IT professionals which you as individual departments can draw on rather than each of you reinventing the wheel? Maybe others could answer.
  (Mr Wrench) I think the difficulty is that the successful introduction of a new IT system has to be a combination of computer expertise and knowledge of the business. To try to keep that IT expertise separate and central and then make it available, it does not get that proper embedding of the business knowledge. That would be the danger I would see.
  (Mr Smith) In a sense, the centre of Government has responded to that concern through the Office of Government Commerce. We have just set up a structured series of gateway reviews for each large Government project. Now the reviewers are largely drawn from elsewhere in Government with top level expertise delivering large change programmes with additional members from the private sector. They do not directly review the detailed technology design of projects but they do review at stages with large projects whether they are being managed appropriately and requirements are being appropriately set where the risk is being appropriately identified and managed. To an extent there is a movement towards the sort of controls you are looking towards.

  192. It seems to me, as a lay person, we might try and keep it simple because overly complex systems breakdown, screw things up, and you are forever chasing your tail. That is just an observation from a lay person.
  (Mr Smith) An observation I would agree with.

  193. Because your departments are so heavily dependent on technology, if the technology fails then the complaints go up and you get a lot of hassle from individuals and the Government gets a lot of bad press, I suppose. That brings me on nicely to Mr Wrench on Immigration and Nationality. Do you think the Government expects too much of your Department? What is a reasonable standard? You have told us about the huge increase in asylum cases. Do you ever say to the Government or Ministers "Get real, you are just asking us to do too much"?
  (Mr Wrench) Certainly there are an awful lot of competing pressures.


  194. That is Civil Service speak for "get real", is it?
  (Mr Wrench) I think Ministers understand very well the realities of those competing pressures but, at the risk of repeating myself, at a time when a number of the inputs that we have to cope with are going upwards, there are some quite hard decisions to be made about just how much can be made available in the way of resources to IND, what are the really crucial targets that we have to hit for output and, inevitably, what can give to allow us to hit those targets because not everything can have the same priority.

Mr Prentice

  195. What about your sister departments, if I can put it that way, in other EU countries, Holland, Germany? Do they have the same problems always chasing their tail?
  (Mr Wrench) Yes, and it may be surprising to hear it but in terms of speed of decision making in asylum cases, for example, we are well ahead of the pack. We are doing better now than our European comparators.

  196. I hate to go over this old ground again. You must be fed up being questioned about it. Why is it something very, very simple like attaching a file to the named individual causes you such problems?
  (Mr Wrench) There are several reasons, inevitably. One is sheer volume, the numbers of live cases that we have got.

  197. There would be a unique number, surely, for each case.
  (Mr Wrench) Yes. But add in to that that a lot of our customers have names which need to be transliterated from other alphabets and you can get into confusion very easily about whether one Arabic name—for example—is the same as another, and that is a source of difficulty. And there have been difficulties in the past with cases which have started life in one part of the organisation, perhaps one of the immigration service offices at a port, then another element has started, perhaps a spouse has made an application in Croydon, and marrying up different starts to paper trails has been difficult over time. I think in all those areas we are getting better but it is a huge administrative task.

Sir Sydney Chapman

  198. Can I just ask, is another factor the change of address of so many people?
  (Mr Wrench) That is a difficulty, certainly. So far as the asylum processes go, as you will know one of the changes that the Government is trying to make with the current legislation on asylum and immigration is to produce a much more managed relationship with asylum seekers which means closer contact all through the decision making process. We have been bedevilled in the past by people making an application and then it taking months or even years to resolve and in the process they have moved several times, changed advisers several times and if any notification of that has been made marrying it up with the papers has been a problematic task.

Mr Prentice

  199. In the papers that we got from the Ombudsman he reminds us that passports have gone missing and files and so on. When these documents eventually re-emerge where do you find them?
  (Mr Wrench) They are usually—


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