Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-131)
SIR MICHAEL BUCKLEY AND MR ALAN WATSON
THURSDAY 21 MARCH 2002
120. You have been quite critical of the Departments which give you a holding response. They would probably say that they have responded and replied to you, rather than qualify it and say it was only a holding version of that. Which Departments do that?
(Mr Watson) I think the Child Support Agency would be probably top of the list in that respect. Some Departments do take longer than we would wish, but they do provide very specific, very detailed replies, which we do find very useful. Customs & Excise have been particularly bad at giving information in recent times, although we are only talking about small numbers. They often do not respond at all within the time limits which we specify.
121. People turn to you at the very end of the road. They are frustrated. This is their last option. Then to be faced with these long delays in trying to get a response for them, can you imagine the pressure that brings on the individual that that should take so long?
(Mr Watson) Absolutely.
122. We know some Departments, and you have mentioned two, have this holding response and then quite a bit of time to respond overall. Would it not make sense to have some sort of model for Departments about how to respond to yourselves?
(Mr Watson) We do do this to a certain extent, particularly with the Department for Work and Pensions, which is our largest customer. They have a standard package that they use in reply to us, and we have tried to use the best practice from that when we talk to other Departments about the sort of information that they have supplied to us.
123. What is their response to that?
(Mr Watson) They do actually find it helpful. We do try to have regular meetings with our major Departments to try to make sure that the liaison arrangements are working properly. A lot of the delay in cases is actually at the end of the process rather than at the beginning of the process. Once we have finished our investigation and we have issued a draft report to the Department to check out the facts and to respond to the recommendations in the report, the average length of time for Departments to reply to that, to actually get the case finalised and issued to the referring Member, is at the moment 62 days, which is an awfully long time to check out facts and to respond to recommendations. Some Departments, of course, are worse than that; that is the average time.
124. Would it be too simplistic to suggest that Departments, just as Gordon Prentice mentioned, could have standard record keeping, standard response procedures, and everyone would then be working in much the same way?
(Mr Watson) I think the answer is probably yes, but that is too simplistic. It is much more complicated than that.
125. Surely a tracking system is not too simplistic for a Department, if you want to computerise the whole thing.
(Mr Watson) It should not be. I agree.
126. Do you raise these matters internally, with Permanent Secretaries or anyone else?
(Sir Michael Buckley) Yes, we do. As Alan says, we have very frequent exchanges with Departments, and clearly it is mainly concerned with our own affairs, as it were, that we do discuss with them response times, suggesting how they could provide helpful responses, and we try also the other way round: we ask how we can shape our procedures so as to make it as easy as possible for them to reply. It is a two-way process, but ultimately one has to accept that questions like multi-million pound computer systems and departmental record keeping are things where we partly concede that things go wrong, but it is not for my Office to prescribe how Departments should run their affairs.
127. If you had the opportunity of saying to Departments, "You can do this very quickly at not a lot of cost. Just be more effective and just be more efficient," what would you ask them to do?
(Sir Michael Buckley) I think probably what needs to be done is to try to make sure we have more continuous dialogue, shall I say, and there is still a tendencyand it is true in my Office too; I would not want to suggest the fault is all on one sideto do it rather formally. We have got better in recent years, but there is still a tendency to receive a response and to work away and produce a draft report, which we then issue to the Department rather than try to keep dialogue going throughout the process and to anticipate problems as they arise.
(Mr Watson) The emphasis over the past two years has been trying to get the Departments to resolve complaints quickly, without the need to issue a statutory report, which probably takes almost a year to do at the moment, where the informal resolutions we are achieving are within three months generally. We have been trying to impress upon Departments that it saves them time and money if they can deal quickly and effectively with the initial inquiries from the Office.
128. Who is still reluctant to use that informality then?
(Mr Watson) I would not like to pinpoint anybody in particular.
129. We would!
(Mr Watson) Some cases are not suitable for that. Some of the CSA cases, for example, are very complicated and it is difficult to achieve early resolution without looking into the full facts of the situation.
(Sir Michael Buckley) I am afraid with CSA cases it is not difficult finding that there has been maladministration. There usually has been maladministration. The difficulty is, so to speak, what would have happened in the absence of maladministration, because it is not, as it is with the Benefits Agency, dealing with just a Department and the potential beneficiary, where you can say the benefit would have been paid at such and such a rate from such and such a time. You also have to raise such questions as, if the Agency had been more efficient in pursuing the non-resident parent, would they ever have actually got some money, because some non-resident parents are extremely skilful at avoiding payment.
130. Just one final question to you as you go. Here you are, five years in the job. You have all the accumulated wisdom of the Office behind you. Gordon asked you about record keeping and John asked you about response times. We have nibbled around this idea of trying to make some evaluation of Departments and so on. I wonder if you could summon up all that experience and knowledge, and help us with the question: who are the goodies and who are the baddies in terms of the way in which Departments and Agencies deal with citizens, your bit of the business? Who is at the top of the league and who is at the bottom?
(Sir Michael Buckley) That is a very difficult question to answer, Chairman. I am reflecting on it. I think that the Department for Work and Pensions probably comes through to citizens as being rather unresponsive and bureaucratic, because they are operating a very complicated set of rules and regulations, and with staff at a very junior level. That inevitably has its effects. By contrast, the Inland Revenue, I think, are much more willing to take a flexible view, because they, I think, approach it in a rather broader way. They can see that if they are not spending time arguing over the minutiae of a particular case, they can be bringing in some revenue elsewhere. I think a league table, like so many league tables, would be rather misleading, and I would prefer to address it in a rather different way. I wish Departments, instead of focusing on the individual case, and spending a great deal of time and money arguing over whether they really ought to be paying £805 or £835 or whatever it may be, would simply, when they properly can, give the benefit of the doubt to the complainant if they can see that the complainant has not received the standard of service that is appropriate and get on with it. The fact of the matter is that there are inevitably going to be mistakes in the administration of large and complicated systems. Even if you have a 0.01 per cent mistake rate, if you are dealing with tens of millions of cases, that is going to generate a large number of cases per year. It is more a matter of not trying to draw a league table of the percentage rates; it is how you deal with things when something has gone wrong, that it is drawn to the attention of someone more senior.
131. I am just alarmed that the Revenue, who keep sending me these letters wanting to fine me for not having sent them pieces of paper are at the top of your league table! It is very kind of you to come along and talk to us about the general work of the Office. Can I say, particularly to you, Michael, that your record of tender of the Office has been a distinguished one, and we can point to practical improvements in its work over that time. We are grateful for all the work you have done. We have particularly valued our association with you as a Committee. We wish you well in what comes next, and I suspect we may see you again in some form. Thank you very much indeed.
(Sir Michael Buckley) Thank you for the kind words, Chairman. Thank you too for the courtesy with which the Committee has always dealt with me.