Memorandum by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (OM 03)
1. My Annual report for 2000-01 provides a detailed account of the workings of my Office and the results it achieved during the year. It explains how the changes made to our organisation and working methods improved our performance. The purpose of this memorandum is to bring that account up-to-date by describing what has been happening in 2001-02. Summaries of all cases completed to the end of September were included in my latest volume of Selected Cases, which was published on 13 March; so too were the full texts of 13 of those cases. My Annual Report for 2000-01 includes examples of the 247 cases I reported on during that year.
CURRENT WORKLOAD AND PERFORMANCE
2. During the current business year to the end of February my Office has received 1,963 complaints (223 of which related to Equitable Life) compared to 1,721 (50 for Equitable Life) in the equivalent period in 2000-01. We have built on the improvements to our working methods started in 2000. For example, in the first 11 months of this business year 39 per cent of complaints were resolved by enquiries of the bodies complained about, compared to 32 per cent at the same time last year. We also have had success in improving the speed with which we deal with complaints: 68 per cent of cases have either been resolved or a statement of complaint issued within six weeks. This compares to a figure of 64 per cent for the equivalent period in 2000-01. There is also a target of resolving matters (or issuing a statement of complaint) within 13 weeks in all cases other than those where there are reasonable prospects of resolution without initiating the investigation process. By the end of February only nine cases had exceeded 13 weeks (compared to 53 in 2000-01); and in six of those cases resolution had been imminent at the 13 weeks' stage.
3. By the end of February we had completed 173 statutory investigations and had discontinued investigation in 81 cases, as suitable resolution had been achieved. That these are slightly lower figures than 2000-01 reflects the fact that more cases are being resolved without the need to initiate an investigation. Even though an increased number of the more straightforward complaints were dealt with by enquiries of the body complained against, the average throughput time for completed and discontinued investigations has been maintained at 45 weeks; and we have only 14 investigations which are over 12 months old. The majority of those will have cleared by the end of this month. A much more accurate view of performance on throughput time would be to include in the calculation all cases in which my Office initiates enquiries about complaints, rather than just those in which an investigation is started and which, not surprisingly, tend to be more complex and time-consuming. Such a calculation for the first 11 months of this year shows that my Office resolved 745 complaints (491 after enquiries, 81 investigations discontinued and 173 statutory reports) in an average throughput time of 20 weeks.
Departmental response times
4. Achieving our throughput time targets, and improving performance, depends to a large extent on receiving prompt responses from the body complained against, both to our initial referrals of the substance of the complaint and to our referral of our report in draft for them to comment on the presentation of the facts and to offer proposals for redress if appropriate. However, there have been occasions when the reply has been no more than a holding reply and others when we have felt that the reply does not adequately address the issues we have raised. Bodies within my jurisdiction should have no excuse for prolonged delays in providing information relevant to my work and in agreeing to provide appropriate redress once I have established that maladministration has led to an unremedied injustice. In one case, Customs and Excise took over four months to reply to a statement of complaint. In several Child Support Agency cases there have been protracted discussions over redress; in one particularly difficult case such discussions have lasted almost a year and I cannot yet be certain of the outcome. A similar situation has existed since October in a Legal Services Commission case. Such lengthy delays are unfair to the complainants concerned.
Records management by departments
5. An increasing concern has been that poor record management by departments sometimes led to complaints, or made it difficult to conduct satisfactory enquiries or investigations. There were particular problems with the Legal Services Commission and with the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office losing, or being unable to locate, relevant papers. It is essential that departments, in such contexts as designing and commissioning new computer systems, should ensure that those systems provide adequate records, including records of telephone conversations, and allow case tracking to ensure that new documents and correspondence can be linked promptly to the relevant files.
ACCESS TO OFFICIAL INFORMATION
6. The Committee is aware of the report I laid before Parliament on the complaint made by Mr Robathan. The Robathan case has been exceptional until now as far as complaints under the Code are concerned. However, given the increasing number of cases involving matters of political sensitivity in information terms, it may be that there will be more such cases in future. In addition, the clearance times of AOI cases have been affected by departmental delays in responding to enquiries and by difficulties encountered by my staff in obtaining papers from departments.
Review of Ombudsman arrangements
7. I eagerly await proposals to give effect to the recommendations of the Cabinet Office Review of Ombudsman arrangements in England. As the Committee is aware, I am disappointed at the slow progress made by the Government on this important work to ensure that citizens have access to a seamless and effective ombudsman service.
8. The Government has announced that it will make one appointment to the posts of Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health Service Commissioner for England. Although I regret this decision, I do not regard it as damaging to the Office; it will at least have the benefit of making for a smooth transition when I retire.
M S Buckley