Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-134)

MR DOUG SMITH, MR VINCE GASKELL AND MR MARK NEALE

WEDNESDAY 22 MAY 2002

  120. Short of prosecution you can assure us that you are giving these cases a hard time?
  (Mr Smith) We are giving a number of cases a hard time within the resources that we have got alongside the child support reform implementation and keeping the existing system under way. The balance of likelihood always was that as we went through the child support reform process we could start to devote more resources on to compliance and enforcement as we freed people up going through the time trail.

  121. You seem to be succeeding quite well in migrating partial to full and that is good, but there is no change at all over the last three or four years. The trends are all absolutely static. You do not seem to be making any inroads into that core group at all and that is a bit of a concern.
  (Mr Smith) It is a concern to me. We are starting, as I indicated earlier, to try and shift some more resources to that area this year.

Andrew Selous

  122. Can I ask you about how you deal with non-resident parents who are not complying with your orders where they are self-employed and perhaps also where they work for family businesses or are paid in cash? I have instances where the day an attachments of earnings notice arrived to a non-resident parent he then left his employment and became self-employed. This seems to be quite a general pattern. Can you tell us what remedies are open to you and if you think they are sufficient to deal with these cases?
  (Mr Smith) I sometimes have a sense of déja-vu in talking about this area. My previous employment was as a tax inspector with the Inland Revenue and the segment of the population that I had most difficulty in dealing with there was exactly the same segment of the population I have difficulty in dealing with here. They are difficult for any organisation, first of all. With self-employed people, we are using, as with all others, the legal requirement to provide information to us. The information they are required to provide is an indication of their income as individuals who are self-employed. That can take the form of accounts, it can take the form of the self-assessment attachment. We look closely at the income that is revealed on that and apply a credibility test on whether that is likely to be reasonable or not. We do liaise with the Inland Revenue where information is not being provided by the non-resident parent to draw information from them, but again I have got to flag up that there is at least as high a likelihood for this segment of the population to be understating their income to the Inland Revenue as they are to us. This is a difficult segment of the population. On enforcement, again there are difficulties with the self-employed because we do not have the capacity to impose deduction from earnings orders as we do with employees. Instead we have to go through the courts to seek to enforce the order. That is a long, time-consuming process for reasons that we have talked about, but increasingly I am seeking to put some more resources in that area to ensure that we do focus on the people who are either cocking a snook at us and are self-employed and making enforcement difficult, or are deliberately—even worse in my mind—moving deliberately to employment, self-employment, employment benefits or going through the various permutations in a deliberate attempt to stay ahead of our people. That is staff resource intensive and it requires some really skilled, committed people to do it. That is why it takes some time to grow that resource and to make it effective but we have started on that path. It is tough stuff.

  123. It is a major area of concern as far as I am concerned and probably as far as the whole Committee is concerned too, but I do hear what you say. Moving on to the accuracy of your work, it was announced recently that there was an 82.5 per cent accuracy rate and then I think it was subsequently found that 37 per cent of the accuracy checks were not themselves accurate. Can you give us an update on that situation and the accuracy of your work in general?
  (Mr Smith) I have put a lot of store on accuracy. When I took this job one of the earliest targets that I decided to focus on was improving the level of accuracy of work dealt with within the Agency. I think that is right because it gets us on to a positive spiral that more accurate work should be reducing workload which should give more time to do more accurate work. We want to have an entire improvement in quality for the work the Agency is doing, and I think accuracy in general is improving. The fact that some of our managers who are doing checks are not themselves totally accurate in their own checks is part of the same problem. It is endemic that we have a very complex process here for people to go through and we need to do more with our managers as we have done with our frontline staff to ensure that they do understand that process and understand when it is accurate and when it is inaccurate. We are looking with our managers to ensuring that we do that. In the last year I have deliberately started building up, almost instinctively, because this is not the route I would prefer to go, a series of checking teams in each of the agencies so that we do not rely on managers doing the checking. We rely on specialists who do checking week in, week out and have the technical knowledge, the technical awareness, the technical knowhow, to ensure that those checks are accurate and we feed back properly to the people at the frontline on the resourcing checks. That is the way we are seeking to improve it. What I would like to do is move away from this concept of constant checking and re-checking of everybody's work and shift the culture a little to much more of a getting it right first time philosophy so that people do take more pride and more care in ensuring that the answer is right and therefore permit us to scale back the amount of checking that we do. That is a longer term approach to this. For the moment we are laying a lot of stress on checking.

Chairman

  124. Would you forgive me, but I am looking at the CSA Audit Assurance Action Plan, and we have had some correspondence about this. The CSA Audit Assurance Action Plan on page 7 contains a statement which says that "audit will not be undertaking validation of the accuracy targets at the request of the Agency". We have had a bit of correspondence about this but that kind of statement still requires some explanation about whether there is really a health warning about the figure that Andrew Selous mentioned of 82.5 per cent. Obviously you do not want a circle of checkers checking checkers, checking checkers, but that is a worrying statement, that the audit process has been discontinued at the behest of the Agency. I think we would be happy if you could explain to us that that is not something we should worry about.
  (Mr Smith) The one thing that concerned me was that we did have that loop of checkers checking checkers, checking checkers, but at some stage I felt we had to break into this and say to internal audit that what I really want to do is validate the processes that our top tier of checkers are following and satisfy me that they are following the right processes. Going through and constantly checking a set of the cases they have checked of the checkers in the business units who have checked the work of the people at the frontline struck me as a remarkably unproductive use of skilled internal audit resource.

  125. So the audit is not being used because you are not looking at individual facts and figures? In each case you are looking at processes?
  (Mr Smith) And the internal audit assurance team do validate our checking processes.

  Chairman: I think I understand that.

Andrew Selous

  126. As far as delays are concerned, are you working towards target response times as far as assessments and change of circumstances are concerned?
  (Mr Smith) Yes, we do have targets for new applications and for change of circumstances and we are seeking to improve those. One of the first changes we made preparatory to child support reform implementation was that we reorganised the entire front-end of our business around new client teams. In some of those we have attempted to focus down on our lead target on improving the speed at which we are dealing with new applications. We are finding there that where new applications are coming in relatively close to the date at which we are actioning them, then the speed at which we are able to deal with them and put them through the system is dramatically faster than the targets that we set as an Agency, the process in general. As we go into next year, again it is part of the preparation for the child support reform, we will be focusing the front-end of our business ever more on dealing with new work and trying to segment that out from cases which were in the backlog so that for new people coming to us they are getting a standard service which is more akin to that they might expect the other side of child support reform than otherwise.

  127. Another area of service that is raised with us as MPs quite frequently is the ability to get hold of your staff on the telephone. Can you tell us something about what steps you are taking to improve that area? Is the information shared in common with everyone in the office or are there specific people who handle cases? Do you have any caseloading per se for specific cases?
  (Mr Smith) It varies. There should be first of all be an MP hot line available to each of you.

  128. I was talking about your customers rather than ourselves.
  (Mr Smith) For the new client teams we are increasingly trying to move towards the concept of a case worker so that any contact on a new case goes to an individual and that should be capable of being handled within that individual's team with relatively few hand-offs. We have tried to tie that one down. For change of circumstances the business is still segmented in ways that will not be the case when we move the other side of child support reform. There are still too many hand-offs at the back end of the business and too many potential points of contact for people at the back end of the business. That will change as we move into child support reform. Just picking up the point on telephone contact, one of the things we have picked up and are running with increasingly this year is the concept of extending the hours at which our offices provide a full service. Many of our offices now operate an 8.00-8.00 service. One of the challenges for the next few months is to ensure that all our offices can move towards operating an 8.00-8.00 full service and then beyond that we are looking at extending the service to Saturdays so that we have a new contact point. That is beneficial both ways. It permits customers to get in touch with us when they want to get in touch with us and, crucially, it gives us an extra window to contact those customers who are difficult to contact or may be embarrassing to contact during the normal business day. We are looking to widen the service in that way.

  129. Those changes will be clearly advertised to your customers?
  (Mr Smith) As soon as we are confident that we can deliver that level of service we will start advertising the service.

  130. The final question relates to complaints. I understand that 72 per cent of non-resident parents and 78 per cent of parents with care are apparently very dissatisfied with the way the complaints are handled by the CSA. Can you tell us what steps you are taking to improve your complaints procedure?
  (Mr Smith) I will try and condense that because I have a volume of improvements. First of all, with each of our new client teams in the new structure we are putting in a complaints handler so that there is a specialist dealing with complaints as close to the frontline as we can put it. In my judgment as many complaints as possible will ultimately be dealt with by the person who is in contact with the complainant so it should not be escalated up through the process. Our people at the front line need the support of somebody who is excellent at dealing with complaints and that will be provided. The new client teams will embrace the same concept for the other teams on the other side of child support reform implementation. In each of the business units we are creating what I call a senior resolution manager role whose job it is to take the next tier of complaints handling, the tier that has gone past the front line, and ensure that the complaint is handled both sensibly and correctly but, more importantly, to use their experience and knowledge of CSR to stand back a little from the complaint and say, "Are we handling this person correctly?", just looking at the round and not getting too focused on the specific bits of the complaint. They will look at the wider issues that might be involved in the case. I want some clear signposts between the front layer of complaints handling and that second tier within the business units and then we will impose a third tier which obviously comes through to my office which will deal with the chief executive layer of complaints which, thankfully, is falling. Nonetheless we need clear signposting as we go through those three layers of the process that mirror the signposting that we offer from responses that I deal with through to our independent case examiner.

Miss Begg

  131. I have a constituent who was a victim of a whole series of administrative errors. What often seems to happen is that an error is compounded by perhaps more than one person. The letter, once it was resolved, that she got from the Agency she felt was a bit begrudging in its apology. There was an acknowledgement that it was the Agency who had made the mistakes but the constituent felt that the apology was not sufficiently robust to satisfy her. Are you looking at how those kinds of matters are avoided?
  (Mr Smith) I speak to signatories of letters to suggest a change of wording in the apology, to just apologise, not that we have provisos attached to it or caveats attached to it but just to say, "We screwed up; we are sorry", in rather more elegant language, but basically that apology is so important. There are three components for complaint letters. Get the apology right, have a clear resolution planned for the future and, where appropriate, offer compensation or redress. This is not rocket science and we can improve that.

  132. It is very important for the perception of the Agency. The other thing is that there is still a problem of computer generated letters which are causing confusion. There is still a problem where you can get a computer generated letter on one day, and the next day and the day after, all of which are contradictory. I thought that had been sorted but I checked with my constituency officer and she said it is still happening and it is still happening too often.
  (Mr Smith) Yes.

  133. What are you doing about it?
  (Mr Smith) We are putting a new IT system in place.

Chairman

  134. I think this is where we came in. Can I say to you gentlemen that this has been a very useful session for us. None of this is easy and I do not want you to go away with the feeling that we are anything other than on your side in trying to get this right. I also want to say to you clearly that we acknowledge the work that your frontline staff do because they do work in adversity, in difficult circumstances, and by and large they work their socks off. If the system does not work it is often the system that fails rather than any member of staff. I want you to try and reflect that as our view to your staff that work so hard and so well for you. We will publish these proceedings and I hope you understand that we will maintain a close interest in the roll-out of this particular programme. We are not going to get in your way by calling you back here more often than is necessary but it may be that at an appropriate time in the future you might come back and do the same again for us when there is something sensible to talk about in terms of the implications of the roll-out for the new programme, if you would not mind doing that. If Mr Gaskell can do us a little note on some of the questions that Mr Marris was addressing to him we would be prepared to accept that on the basis on which it was offered. That would be very valuable. I hope you have found it a useful session if a bit arduous. We thank you for that. It will now provide a bit more information to a much wider community than just people in this room this morning about what is going on and it might at least give a bit more reassurance that you are doing all you can to try and address these problems. Thank you very much for your appearance.





 
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