Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, today reported that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority’s productivity and processes compared well when benchmarked against three private sector insurance companies. The examination highlighted opportunities for the Authority to make improvements, and the report sets out 23 recommendations aimed at enhancing the quality of service provided to applicants and efficient processing of applications.
The report suggests that the Authority should investigate the costs and benefits of a telephone call centre. This could benefit customer service and assist in screening out some of the applications that do not ultimately result in an award. Even if the introduction of a call centre and other customer service improvements were to screen out only some of the less well founded cases, a 10 per cent reduction in applications would release additional staff effort worth almost £0.5 million a year.
The Authority’s staff are seen to be helpful and considerate in the handling of applications, and the level of complaints is low. Applicants find the Authority’s guidance on the scheme helpful, though the Authority’s other written communications require improvement. For example, decision letters do not always explain clearly the reason for the decision, and may lead to applicants contesting a decision that they do not understand.
Use of the scheme is not uniform across Britain: levels of applications relative to recorded violent crimes are much higher in the area from the West Midlands to the north of England. The Authority does not monitor the ethnicity of applicants, so it is not possible to assess the awareness of the scheme among ethnic minority communities.
Overall the report concludes that the Authority has appropriate training and procedures to provide for consistent treatment of applicants. Around three-quarters of the Authority’s initial decisions are accepted by applicants, and around two-thirds of those which are contested are upheld at review or appeal. A common reason for changing the decision appears to be the provision of new evidence after the first decision has been taken. Encouraging applicants to provide all relevant information from the start therefore needs to be accorded a high priority.
The report suggests that the quality of decision-making would be further improved if the allocation of cases took more account of caseworkers’ levels of experience and if the Authority’s processes generated systematic feedback to staff.
During 1998-99, the Authority took, on average, 8 months to process an application from receipt to the issue of a decision. Reviews requested by applicants took a further six months. Cases that went on to appeal took nearly eight months from the receipt of an appeal to the appeal decision, and the average time from initial application to an appeal hearing was 25 months. The Authority and the Appeals Panel attribute delays in dealing with cases at review and appeal mainly to shortages of Authority staff undertaking reviews and preparing cases for appeal hearings, and the Authority has diverted resources into these activities.
The report recommends that the Authority should examine staffing needs in all parts of its operation. The Authority should discuss with the Home Office (and, as appropriate, the Scottish Executive) issues of complement, recruitment and retention of staff, and the business case for new working practices, such as a telephone call centre, as well as areas for improved efficiency. The Home Office and Scottish Executive should consider giving the Authority responsibility for recruiting and selecting staff so that it can take a more active role in building a more stable and skilled workforce.