Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 12 of Session 2003-04, dated 25 March 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said that it was astounding and unacceptable that one in five benefits decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions contains errors, and that this did little for the credibility of the social security system.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 12th Report of this Session, which examined progress by the Department for Work and Pensions in improving the quality of decision-making in social security benefits. The Department makes millions of decisions on eligibility for benefit every year. Incorrect decisions can cause uncertainty and hardship for customers and may mean eligible claimants are wrongly denied benefit. They also increase the chance of ineligible customers receiving benefit and reduce administrative efficiency. In 1998, the arrangements for benefit decision-making were reformed following concerns about high levels of error and about delays in the handling of appeals against decisions. Since the introduction of these changes, the Department has succeeded in reducing the number of appeals against decisions and reducing the waiting times for customers who appeal. However, the National Audit Office found no conclusive evidence that the accuracy of decision-making had improved. In 2001-02-the most recent year of data-some 20% of benefit decisions contained errors.

The Committee found that the complexity of the benefit system remains a major problem for staff and customers alike and is a key factor affecting the performance of the Department. The Department explained that benefit regulations must reflect a wide range of circumstances and complexity was, in part, driven by a desire to avoid unfair treatment of individuals. The Department agreed, however, that complexity can lead to mistakes by staff and confusion amongst customers.

The Department should further develop the skills of all decision-makers through enhanced training and wider on-the-job experience. To date, there have been ad hoc local initiatives to enhance skills but proven initiatives should be implemented more systematically. There could, for example, be more frequent rotation between the different stages of the work, secondments to central guidance and checking teams, and joint training with welfare rights bodies. There should also be better feedback to decision-makers about the results of their cases that go to appeal to help them learn from their work.

There is a need for greater transparency in monitoring and reporting on performance in decision making. In particular the Department should implement the recommendations made by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2002 to improve the range, design and level of detail of the Secretary of State's report on standards in decision-making. The reports of the Standards Committee should also be published in full, along with information about its work programme.

Too few decisions are right first time. For Disability Living Allowance the error rate is nearly 50%, and 54% of cases which go to appeal are overturned in the customer's favour. The Department should advise customers of the importance of providing all evidence as early as possible in the process, and should seek to increase contact with customers where this can help to obtain additional information quickly. The Department should also develop amongst staff involved at all stages (from initial decision to appeal tribunal) a shared understanding of the eligibility requirements for benefits, including through common training.

Better use should be made of the reconsideration stage. The Department should raise awareness of the value of the reconsideration stage amongst customers and their advisers, and staff should make more use of this opportunity to correct or clarify decisions. Increasing the number of reconsiderations and reducing the number of customers who feel the need to appeal would also lead to administrative savings.

No customers should first learn that their benefit has been withdrawn when they discover that the payment has been refused. The Department should improve the quality of explanations provided to customers about the outcome of their decision, and ensure that computer problems do not prevent some notification letters going out. Staff too should be able to access letters sent to customers so they can answer questions from customers making contact with the Department.

There are some striking regional differences in certain decision-making practices which may be leading to payments to people who are not eligible for benefit. The Department should examine the differences between regions, for example, in the proportion of cases referred for scrutiny of adherence to Jobseeker's Allowance agreement terms to establish whether low levels of referrals increase the risk of ineligible customers receiving benefits. The Department should advise the Standards Committee on the outcome of this research.

The Department should take a more risk-focused approach to sending presenting officers to represent them at tribunals in order to ensure that the Department's case is properly heard. Currently, there is no strategy or logic dictating when presenting officers attend. The Department should devise and adhere to criteria for attendance. These might include, for example, sending presenting officers to all complex appeals tribunals, to represent them, to advise the tribunal, and to provide feedback to decision-makers.

A number of current targets appear to serve little purpose. The Department should look again at the targets set for the time for the preparation of appeals submissions to ensure they are stretching and provide incentives to staff in some districts and offices to improve performance. A target of 50 days for Jobseeker's Allowance would seem more realistic as it is already met by half the districts.

Mr Leigh said today:

"It is astounding that one in five benefits decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions contains errors. This performance is simply unacceptable given the uncertainty and hardship it can cause for society's disadvantaged and often vulnerable groups, and does little for the credibility of the social security system. I look to the Department to make substantial improvements in the accuracy of its decision-making, through more systematic and enhanced training and on-the-job experience, greater transparency about performance, and greater use of reconsiderations."

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